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Washington judiciary declares itself exempt from open records law

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  1. Freedom of Information
Washington’s Public Records Act does not apply to the state’s judiciary, the Washington Supreme Court ruled on Thursday. The decision…

Washington’s Public Records Act does not apply to the state’s judiciary, the Washington Supreme Court ruled on Thursday. The decision exempts all judges within the state from disclosing their professional correspondence or case files.

The case stems from a public records request by open government activist David Koenig, who sought access to documents and communications about a City of Federal Way scandal involving the resignation of Municipal Judge Colleen Hartl in 2007, the Associated Press reports. Hartl stepped down after the exposure of an affair with a public defender who frequently appeared before her in court. Hartl told court workers about the sexual encounter at a party, the Tacoma News Tribune reports.

Koenig requested correspondence to and from Municipal Court Presiding Judge Michael Morgan and all documents related to the scandal. The judiciary handed over 183 pages of documents, but refused to disclose any of the communications.

The 7-2 ruling affirms two lower courts decisions denying Koenig’s request. The high court held that a 1986 decision interpreted the state’s public records act found the definition of the term "agency" did not include the judiciary.

Under the statute in question, a state agency is defined as a "state office, department, division, bureau, board, commission or other state agency." The court held that the judiciary is not included in the definition of a local agency either, since it is defined as a "county, city, town, municipal corporation, quasi-municipal corporation, or any special purpose district, or any office, department, division, bureau, board, commission or agency thereof, or other local public agency."

The Supreme Court blamed the state legislature for not amending the language of the law to include the judiciary after the 1986 decision. "The Legislature acquiesced to that decision by not modifying the [Public Records Act]," Justice Susan Owens wrote for the majority in the Supreme Court opinion.

Appellate Judge Kevin M. Korsmo, in a concurrence, wrote that he believed the 1986 case was “wrongly decided” but that only the legislature has the power to change the law.

In a dissent, Chief Justice Gerry Alexander and Justice Debra Stephens agreed with Koenig that the 1986 decision to did not exclude the judiciary from its interpretation of what constitutes an agency.

“In the end I believe we do a disservice to interpret the [Public Records Act], a broad mandate for open government, to exempt entirely the judicial branch of government,” wrote Stephens in the dissent. “Courts plainly meet the statutory definition of ‘agency.’”