The Washington Supreme Court issued its opinion in Associated Press v. Washington State Legislature, rejecting the State Legislature’s claims that individual legislators’ records were not subject to disclosure under the Public Records Act (PRA), RCW 42.56. A coalition of news agencies had challenged the Legislature’s denial of hundreds of public records requests submitted to the Legislature’s clerk and individual legislators. In a series of plurality opinions, the Supreme Court concluded that the offices of individual state senators and representatives are fully subject to the PRA, while the Legislature as a branch of government is subject to the Act in only a narrowly prescribed manner.
Seven justices agreed that the offices of individual legislators are subject “in full” to the Act’s disclosure mandates. Tracking the definition of “agency” to the original 1972 Initiative establishing the PRA and related statutes, the lead opinion authored by Justice Owens concluded that “individual legislators' offices are plainly and unambiguously ‘agencies’ for purposes of the PRA.” In doing so, the Court rejected an alternative analysis of the statute and its legislative history advanced by the legislators who contended that their records were exempt from disclosure. The opinion also noted that if the legislators’ interpretation was correct, then no state elected official or their respective offices would be subject to the PRA — a result the court found “untenable” and “absurd.”
A majority of justices ruled that “institutional legislative bodies,” which include the whole Legislature, the state Senate and House of Representatives and their administrative offices, are not subject to the PRA, except as the Act specifies for certain legislative records held by the Secretary of the Senate and Chief Clerk. The lead opinion found that these institutional legislative bodies were distinguishable from entities, such as the offices of individual legislators and the governor, and did not fall under the PRA’s definition of “agency.” The Court found that the distinction “made sense” because the Legislature’s records are already public in nature, e.g. records of legislative sessions, bill reports, and other records created by official acts of the Legislature.
The effect of this ruling is that legislators’ calendars, emails, communications with constituents and lobbyists, and other records will now be subject to disclosure. The offices of individual legislators will also be subject to the same PRA requirements and penalties for failing to comply as other state and local agencies.