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First hearing in public records lawsuit against Legislature

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OLYMPIA, Wash. — An initial hearing Friday on a public records lawsuit filed against the Washington state Legislature by a coalition of news organizations established some ground rules in the case moving forward, but a date for arguments won’t be set for a few more days.

The brief scheduling conference was held before Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese, who, with agreement from attorneys from both sides, said that the focus on the cross motions in the coming weeks should focus on the overarching legal argument of whether the Legislature is subject to the state’s public records act.

The news coalition, led by The Associated Press, is challenging state lawmakers’ assertion that they are excluded from stricter disclosure rules that apply to other elected officials and agencies.

The Legislature has hired two outside firms to represent it in the case: Seattle-based Pacifica Law Group, which has assigned three attorneys to the case, including Gov. Jay Inslee’s former counsel, Nick Brown, and Olympia-based Bean, Gentry, Wheeler & Peternell, which has assigned former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander.

The lawsuit focuses on how the Washington Legislature interprets a 1995 revision to a 1971 definition of legislative records. Lawyers for the House and Senate regularly cite that change as a reason to withhold records, arguing that most lawmaker records — including calendars and text messages — are not considered public.

That is despite voters overwhelmingly passing an initiative in 1972 that affirmed the public’s right to “full access to public records so as to assure continuing public confidence in fairness of elections and governmental processes, and so as to assure that the public interest will be fully protected.”