Guest column: Supreme Court ruling helps hometown newspapers keep eye on legislators

  • Wednesday, January 8, 2020 1:30am
  • Opinion

In 1869, the Daily Cleveland Herald quoted lawyer John Godfrey Saxe as saying, “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.” That saying, or variants of it, have been repeated so often that it has become accepted knowledge.

The fact is, though, the more we know about the origin and development of laws, the better off we are. Bad laws get created in back rooms, through undisclosed emails, riding on golf carts and over drinks at the country club bar. Good laws are created in the open and under the gaze of the public.

We all know how money influences elections and politicians, how a scratch on the back here eases an itch on a back there. Human nature being what it is, this is the world we live in.

And that being the case, it is good news indeed that the Washington Supreme Court upheld in a 7-2 vote on Dec. 19 that individual state legislators are subject to the Public Records Act and must disclose records such as calendars, staff complaints and emails from lobbyists etc. upon request from members of the public.

The decision came as a result of a lawsuit filed by a coalition of media organizations in 2017. The coalition, led by the Associated Press and the Seattle Times, included the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association (WNPA). The judge in that case, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese, ruled in January 2018 that the records of individual Washington state lawmakers are subject to public records law.

Not only did the legislature appeal that decision, it also rammed through a bill in 48 hours that would have exempted its members from the Public Records Act.

The bill was vetoed by Gov. Jay Inslee after he received close to 20,000 emails, calls and letters from the public after the media raised a ruckus. Another bill proposed by Democratic lawmakers was withdrawn in 2019 after being subjected to withering criticism.

The continuing efforts of lawmakers to escape public scrutiny obligates the media to keep a close eye on Olympia to make certain they don’t once again try to pass one over us. The WNPA has two legislative reporter interns, Cameron Sheppard from Washington State University and Leona Vaughn from University of Washington, who will be our watchdogs during the session.

Although the Public Records Act could stand some improvement, it still allows the public a window into the machinery of lawmaking and that is a good thing.

Just like we want to know what’s in the sausages we’re eating, we should know what’s behind the laws that are being passed in our names.

Patrick Grubb is president of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.

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