The framers of the Constitution would be proud to see that the separation of powers doctrine has flourished in the state named after the nation’s first executive officer.
On Thursday, the Washington state Supreme Court checked an attempt by the legislative body to flout the clear intent of a sunshine law but found a balance that’s reasonable, if imperfect.
The justices ruled that legislators are subject to the state’s Open Public Records Act while the House and Senate administrative offices are exempted from the full mandate of the law.
Simply stated, the 7-2 decision jammed up Democratic and Republican lawmakers who thought they didn’t have to comply with the 1972 law that essentially enacted Article 1, Section 1 of the state’s constitution: “All political power is inherent in the people, and governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, and are established to protect and maintain individual rights.”
In other words, public officials work for the people, and the people want to know what’s going on and how decisions are made.
Many different news organizations, led by the Associated Press and including Whidbey News-Times’ parent company Sound Publishing, filed the lawsuit against the Legislature after public records requests went unfilled.
The issue isn’t as esoteric as it may sound. Reporters want to know some pretty basic and important information, such as which lawmakers were investigated for sexual harassment, which lobbyists met with lawmakers and other matters that the public clearly has a right to know.
The Supreme Court opinion affirms a 2018 ruling by a Thurston County superior court judge.
Following the 2018 ruling, the Legislature quickly passed a bill — without public input and with shockingly little discussion — exempting the body from disclosure laws.
Following a massive outcry from the media and public, Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed the measure.
At the time, all three of the state lawmakers representing Whidbey Island supported the bill. Only Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, is still in office.
What was particularly galling at the time was that lawmakers claimed the information they receive and squirrel away is somehow more private or important that what other local and state agencies handle.
Really? The Island County Sheriff’s Office, the prosecutor’s offices and other county offices, for example, deal with the most sensitive information imaginable. Women who are beaten, children who are raped, teenagers who overdose, people who are murdered. These offices comply with disclosure laws, which demands that all documents become public once investigations are complete, but with redactions necessary to protect victims and the private information of others.
Thank God for American-style democracy, at least in this case. When the arrogant majority of the legislative branch overstepped, the judicial and executive branches set things right.