Court supports records act

PUBLIC PAPERS: State Supreme Court rules in favor of allowing release of public documents

A citizen who sues a state agency can seek records from it under Washington's public records act, the state's highest court ruled Thursday.

The Washington State Supreme Court took up the issue after a Bellevue woman filed suit in 1999 against the state Department of Social and Health Services in King County Superior Court alleging a state worker sexually assaulted her son.

Her attorney, Denis Stearns, sought information for the case from DSHS through the public records act. But a DSHS attorney denied the request, saying the act was not a tool for pretrial discovery.

Superior Court Judge Donald Haley agreed, prompting Stearns' appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Stearns said he was surprised by DSHS' and the judge's position. "And that's what got my dander up," he said. "I'm not normally the kind of person who tilts at windmills. But I'm a big fan of the public records act."

Michael Lynch, senior counsel to Attorney General Christine Gregoire, said the state wasn't trying to deny Stearns the records.

The state argued that civil court rules should guide the release of records.

By using the records act, litigants can circumvent rules and timelines that a judge sets, he said. Some attorneys use the records laws as a tactical advantage against government agencies.

"We wanted a level playing field," Lynch said. He added that judges have ruled differently when confronted with the question.

In addition to ruling against the state, the Supreme Court ordered the state to pay Stearns' attorneys fees, a standard part of the records act. Stearns estimated the fees at $32,000.

The act requires all state and local agencies to make "all public records" open for review or copying unless the record falls within a specific exemption.

Such exemptions include school records and some police reports.

Stearns said he took the case to the Supreme Court because of the principle at stake.

The state cannot make new exemptions that don't exist under the law, he said.

"They're trying to take us down that slippery slope by saying in some circumstances we don't have to give (the records) to you," Stearns said.

Seven agencies filed briefs supporting Stearns' case: the Building Industry Association of Washington, the American Civil Liberties Union, Allied Daily Newspapers, Evergreen Freedom Foundation, Washington Association of Realtors, the Washington State Farm Bureau and the Washington State Trial Lawyers.

The Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys supported the state's position.