Media Law Prof Blog

Editor: Christine A. Corcos
Louisiana State Univ.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Supreme Court of Washington Reaffirms That Courts Are Not "Agencies" Within Meaning of State Public Records Act

The Washington Supreme Court has ruled that courts are not "agencies" under the state's public records law, Chapter 42.56 RCW, in City of Federal Way v. Koenig.

¶8 The records in Nast and the records at issue here clearly meet the first part of the PRA's definition of public records—both sets of records are writings that contain information relating to the conduct of government. The only question is whether the entity that created the records (here, the judiciary) is a “state or local agency.” The Nast court resolved this question, holding that the PRA definitions do not include “either courts or case files.” ... Because the records met the other elements of the PRA's definition of public records, Nast necessarily held that the judiciary is not a “state or local agency.” We find it unreasonable to now twist this holding to sometimes include the courts in the definition of agency. Either the entity maintaining a record is an agency under the PRA or it is not. Under Nast, the courts are not included in the definition of agency, and thus, the PRA does not apply to the judiciary. As a result, the court records requested by Koenig are not subject to disclosure under the PRA.


¶9 Koenig contends that this court should reconsider Nast  entirely because its analysis was erroneous and because a recent amendment to the PRA has incorporated common law exceptions to public disclosure requirements. The principle of stare decisis “‘requires a clear showing that an established rule is incorrect and harmful before it is abandoned.’” ...This respect for precedent “promotes the evenhanded, predictable, and consistent development of legal principles, fosters reliance on judicial decisions, and contributes to the actual and perceived integrity of the judicial process.” ...

¶10 Koenig argues that the Nast analysis erred because it failed to liberally construe the terms “agency” and “public records.” First, this argument was considered by the court in Nast, as evidenced by Justice Durham's dissent on this very issue. ...Making the same arguments that the original court thoroughly considered and decided does not constitute a showing of “incorrect and harmful.”  ... Second, the Nast court considered the full definition of agency and found that the judiciary was not included. ...Indeed, the PRA definition of agency does not include any language referring to courts or the judiciary. The Nast court reasonably concluded that the legislature did not intend to include the judiciary, basing its ruling on a “reading of the entire public records section of the [PRA].” ... Koenig has failed to demonstrate that this holding was incorrect and harmful. Without such a showing, we will not overturn precedent.

¶11 Koenig also points out that the third basis for Nast (that the PRA did not include the statutory exemptions honed under the common law right of access to court files) no longer applies because the PRA now incorporates such statutory exemptions. ...While Koenig is correct that the third basis for Nast no longer applies, the broader holding remains. As noted above, the fundamental basis for Nast—that the PRA's definition of agency does not include the judiciary—is sufficient to support Nast 's holding. The fact that the third basis no longer applies is not enough to overturn Nast.

¶12 More notably, the legislature has declined to modify the PRA's definitions of agency and public records in the 23 years since the Nast decision. This court presumes that the legislature is aware of judicial interpretations of its enactments and takes its failure to amend a statute following a judicial decision interpreting that statute to indicate legislative acquiescence in that decision. By not modifying the PRA's definition of agency to include the judiciary, the legislature has implicitly assented to our holding in Nast that the PRA does not apply to the judiciary and judicial records.


¶14 This court previously held that the PRA does not apply to the judiciary and the legislature acquiesced to that decision by not modifying the PRA. We see no reason to violate the doctrine of stare decisis here. The trial court correctly held that the PRA does not require the City to release the judicial records requested by Koenig, and we affirm.

Read the entire opinion here.

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