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Public Records Act available even for use in a lawsuit

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         WASHINGTON         Freedom of Information         Jul 20, 2001    

Public Records Act available even for use in a lawsuit

  • An agency cannot refuse to disclose records under the Public Records Act simply because they would also be available to parties in litigation under court discovery rules.

A mother who sued the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services over the alleged molestation of her son can use the states’ Public Records Act to gain access to that agency’s records and does not have use court discovery procedures simply because she would be using the records in a lawsuit, the Supreme Court of Washington decided June 21.

The Public Records Act requires state and local agencies to make “all public records” available for public inspection unless they are specifically exempt from the act, the court concluded, reversing a lower court which had ordered O’Connor to make all future requests through court discovery procedures, not the state open records law.

Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington joined a diverse group of organizations in a friend-of-the-court brief before the state’s high court. They said that the legislature had listed all exemptions intended to apply in the state’s open records act and that these did not include an exemption for records used in “other litigation.” The media group joined the Washington State Farm Bureau, the Washington Association of Realtors, the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, and the Building Industry Association in the brief.

They told the court that it is far more efficient to obtain records through public records requests than through inefficient, overly formalistic discovery practices “that delay and frustrate the search for the truth, and inflate legal costs to the point that access to justice is compromised.”

Kathleen O’Connor in June 1999 filed a complaint in King County Superior Court against the state’s Department of Social and Health Services claiming that her son had been molested by a department employee. She made several public records requests to the department and the state attorney general’s office for public records relating to her case.

The department and the attorney general refused to fulfill her requests, saying that instead they would abide by court rules of discovery. When O’Connor sued, the trial court in King County, declared these requests invalid and ordered O’Connor and her attorney to make all future requests pursuant to the rules of discovery, not the state open records laws.

The decision to reverse the trial court was made by the full court.

(O’Connor v. Washington State Department of Social and Health Services; Attorney: Denis Wayne Stearns, Seattle) CC

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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