In Washington, state lawmakers have long claimed that, unlike mayors and city council members, they don't have to turn over their calendars, emails, and text messages, even when those documents relate to state business. A new lawsuit from Washington State's biggest media outlets could change that.
The Associated Press, Seattle Times, Spokesman Review, KING-TV, KIRO 7, and others are suing the state legislature, claiming that lawmakers are violating state public records laws when they refuse to turn over their schedules, emails, and texts.
"Without access to such records," AP reporter Rachel La Corte writes today, "it’s harder for the public to know who is trying to influence their state lawmakers on important policy decisions, which groups and individuals they are meeting with and what the priorities are as they debate spending tens of billions of dollars each year in tax money."
The complaint filed in Thurston County Superior Court today names the state house and senate as well as senate leaders Republican Mark Schoesler and Democrat Sharon Nelson and house leaders Democrat Frank Chopp and Republican Dan Kristiansen.
The complaint cites an initiative voters approved in 1972, which created the Public Disclosure Act, later renamed the Public Records Act. That act governs which records are made public. The initiative included a section saying government agencies "shall make available for public inspection and copying all public records." The law has been amended over the years. In 1995, the state legislature amended the act to add or change definitions for "state office," "state legislative office," and "public record." (Here's a timeline from the AP of important events related to Washington's public records law.)
Lawmakers now regularly claim those 1995 changes exempted them from disclosing certain records. Lawyers for the media outlets say lawmakers are misinterpreting the law. Michele Earl-Hubbard, the lawyer representing the media outlets, told The Stranger those 1995 changes were meant to ensure that state government saved certain types of records but not to exclude all other types of records from disclosure.
“What’s troubling to me is the state legislature most of the time gets to write the law and they get to amend the law—and they have amended the Public Records Act many times to erode public access—but here they’re interpreting one of their amendments to completely remove themselves from the reach of public oversight," Earl-Hubbard said. "That’s just wrong and it’s even more wrong when the words [of the law] don’t support that.”
The complaint cites multiple records requests filed by reporters for the AP, Seattle Times, Northwest News Network, and The News Tribune, including requests for communications to and from state lawmakers about education funding. Those records could have provided valuable insight into what state lawmakers were doing as they faced ongoing $100,000 per day fines over their failure to adequately fund public education.
In June and July, the entire coalition of media outlets asked for all state lawmakers' calendars and text messages related to legislative business from the first half of 2017. Lawyers for the state house and senate refused the bulk of those requests, again claiming calendars and most text messages are not public records. They provided only one text message in response to the request.
"We’ve hit a brick wall," Earl-Hubbard said. “In my 20 years as a lawyer for the press, I have very rarely seen [media outlets] come together in a coalition like this. The fact that they’re doing that here illustrates how important this is.”
The AP reports that while some lawmakers voluntarily released the documents, at least one Democratic state representative, Everett's Mike Sells, responded by claiming the request was a "sad comment on the state of our press."
The complaint asks the court to order the state legislature to issue the records responsive to their request and stop the legislature from failing to provide records in the future. They also ask for $100 per page per day from the date of their request until the legislature provides the records.