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Supreme Court ruling limits access in 'broad' requests

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Supreme Court ruling limits access in ‘broad’ requests

  • Washington’s Supreme Court ruled that agencies can disregard public requests that are too broad, and use a general attorney-client privilege to withhold information under the state’s Public Disclosure Law.

May 20, 2004 — Agencies can dismiss public records requests that are overly broad, and general attorney-client privilege statutes can block the release of certain documents under the state’s public disclosure law, the Supreme Court of Washington ruled last week.

In a 5-4 decision May 13, the court denied access to information concerning mass transit projects in Seattle. The ruling dealt with two cases that were combined by the court.

The first case involved a request by the Citizens Against the Monorail Coalition for all relevant documents regarding the development of a new monorail line in Seattle — an issue the political action committee has long opposed. The plan gained approval via referendum in 2002. Weeks before that election, the coalition asked to inspect all records of the Elevated Transportation Company. The agency, currently known as the Seattle Popular Monorail Authority, denied the request because it was overly broad.

The Supreme Court agreed with that rationale.

The Public Disclosure Act was enacted “to allow the public access to government documents once agencies are allowed the opportunity to determine if the requested documents are exempt from disclosure; it was not enacted to facilitate unbridled searches of an agency’s property,” Chief Justice Gerry Alexander wrote for the majority, noting that the law requires requesters to identify documents with “reasonable clarity.”

The dissent argued that the holding does not conform to state laws that mandate broad public disclosure. The act “is to be liberally construed to promote full access to public records, and its exceptions are to be narrowly construed,” Justice Charles Johnson wrote for the dissent. He argued that as long as the coalition’s request dealt with identifiable records, breadth should not have been an issue.

“What better way to ‘identify’ all of ETC’s public documents than simply to request all of ETC’s public documents?,” he wrote.

The agency did not maintain a public records index as required by law.

In the second case, the court overturned a ruling that the City of Seattle must make public records it had argued were protected under the attorney-client privilege, which is not specifically addressed in the Public Disclosure Act. The Supreme Court’s ruling extended the attorney-client statute to qualify as an exception to the act.

“Thus, the majority’s decision that the attorney-client privilege is fully incorporated into the PDA is directly at odds with the stated purpose of the amendments,” Johnson wrote in the dissent. Washington’s Public Disclosure Act was amended in 1987 to restrict the exemptions of the Act.

According to Aaron Hugh Caplan, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who represented Rick Hangartner, the one positive from that ruling was that it included a written warning against “bogus claims of privilege.” The ruling stipulated that “bad faith” claims of attorney-client privilege “could cost the agency dearly since a requesting party is ‘entitled’ to an award of between $5 and $100 for each day that it was wrongfully denied ‘the right to inspect or copy (the requested) public record.’ ”

(Hangartner v. City of Seattle; Counsel: Judith A. Endejan, Grahm & Dunn, Seattle; Aaron Hugh Caplan, ACLU) AV


© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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