Legislature, listen carefully to the judge

Emails, calendars and text messages of the Washington state Legislature are public records subject to disclosure. Following last week’s ruling by a Thurston County judge affirming that requirement, lawmakers need to move quickly to ensure disclosure is the practice.

Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese made clear the the Public Records Act applies to legislators just as it has for local governments and state agencies.

Lanese flatly rejected claims by the Legislature’s lawyers that as members of a separate branch of government individual legislators are exempted from the law. Lanese did say the Legislature as a whole is exempt as a separate branch, but individual members’ offices and the administrative offices of the House and Senate must comply.

The judge also rejected claims that past amendments to the act could shield the Legislature from requirements imposed on state and local government agencies and offices by Initiative 276, passed by voters in 1972.

The ruling was a major and overdue victory for open government advocates and the Northwest media outlets that filed the lawsuit last September. Parties to the suit include The Associated Press, Northwest public radio, television and numerous newspapers (including McClatchy’s Tacoma News Inc. which includes The Olympian).

Lawyers for the Legislature gave notice this week they will appeal the ruling directly to the state Supreme Court.

Fighting on is the wrong approach. The Legislature’s position violates the spirit and letter of Initiative 276, adopted by voters in 1972, as Lanese noted from the bench.

According to AP, Lanese noted from the bench that state law "literally says that representatives and senators and their offices are agencies under the Public Records Act … [N]one of the arguments advanced by the defendants here can escape the fact that the plain and unambiguous language of the statute literally has a definitional chain that goes from agencies to state agencies to state offices to state legislative offices."

Legislators have a chance now to do the right thing for the state and its more than 7 million residents by quickly embracing the court findings.

In a sign that some were seeing the benefits of sunshine, Rep. Drew MacEwen issued a synopsis of his weekly calendar before the ruling. We applaud MacEwen, a Republican from Union, for promising to do that voluntarily every week.

Unfortunately his released calendars are an incomplete copy of his appointments. They list mostly interest groups but exclude, as MacEwen acknowledged, individual constituents’ names on privacy grounds.

Lawmakers could also pass legislation or adopt legislative rules that underscore that individual lawmakers’ records are fully subject to the PRA.

A bill introduced last year by Republican Rep. Paul Graves of Fall City would do that. So would more recent bills from Republican Sen. Mark Miloscia of Federal Way and Democratic Rep. Gerry Pollet of Seattle.

Disclosure of government records is a necessity in western-style democracies.

It should be a given in Washington that all members of the public – of any political stripe – have a right to know and understand how their lawmakers, elected officials and other government employees do their business.