The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and a coalition of 16 media organizations are supporting The Associated Press and eight Washington state news and journalism organizations in their fight against the state legislature’s attempt to shield lawmakers’ records from the public.
In a friend-of-the-court brief filed April 25, the Reporters Committee urged the Washington Supreme Court to uphold the trial court’s determination that individual legislators are subject to Washington’s Public Records Act, but to reverse the trial court’s ruling that the PRA doesn’t apply to Washington’s legislature collectively.
The media coalition argues that the plain language of the PRA makes clear that it provides for public access to records of both the state legislature and individual legislators’ offices.
“[T]he plain language of the Act — throughout its many amendments — has consistently included the offices of individual legislators and the Legislature itself,” the coalition states in the brief. “The PRA’s definition of ‘public records’ expressly includes ‘legislative records’ — as a type of record that applies to specified legislative officers — and expands the definition from there to apply to all ‘agencies.’”
Access to legislative records enables journalists to accurately report on legislators’ work and ensure the public can monitor their elected officials, which promotes trust that officials will represent the public’s interests.
“The PRA was enacted so that Washingtonians would ‘remain informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments they have created,’” Reporters Committee attorneys stated in the brief. “The Legislature’s view that it is not subject to the PRA is contrary to the public’s interest and the Act’s goal of ensuring that government entities and officials are responsive to an informed public.”
The appeal follows efforts by both chambers of the state legislature in February 2018, after the trial court ruled in the case, to pass SB 6617, which would have exempted them from the PRA and created separate disclosure requirements and exemptions that are unique to them. The bill’s introduction also followed intense public interest in legislative records after allegations of inappropriate behavior and abuse by lawmakers came to light.
The bill was introduced only 48 hours before it was passed — without public debate or comment — and sent to the governor with an “emergency” clause that would have made the bill take effect immediately after passing through the governor’s office.
The Reporters Committee issued a statement in response to the bill, and Washingtonians also quickly responded, objecting loudly to its passage with more than 19,000 phone calls, emails and letters from state residents flooding the governor’s office urging him to veto the bill.
“The public’s right to government information is one we hold dearly in Washington… I believe legislators will find they can fulfill their duties while being fully transparent, just like state and local governments all across Washington,” said Governor Jay Inslee, who vetoed the bill.