Washington Legislature has spent $56,000 so far to defend against open-records lawsuit

The attorney billing statements are among the few types of documents the Legislature does make public. For decades, it has claimed an exemption to the state Public Records Act.

OLYMPIA — The Washington Legislature has spent at least $56,000 in taxpayer money on private attorneys to defend against a lawsuit challenging its exemption to the state’s open-records law, according to billing statements.

The cost could potentially run tens of thousands of dollars higher, as billing statements haven’t all been submitted for the legal work in December and January.

The bills are among the few types of documents the Legislature does make public. For decades, it has claimed an exemption to the state Public Records Act.

As a result, lawmakers and the Legislature’s administrative offices withhold emails, work calendars and records of complaints against elected officials, as well as other documents.

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Local governments, state agencies and the governor’s office routinely make those types of documents public.

In a Friday morning hearing, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese could rule on a legal challenge to that exemption, which 10 news organizations, including The Seattle Times, filed in September.

No matter which way Lanese rules, the decision is likely to be appealed.

Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, declined to comment this week on the decision to hire private attorneys, rather than using the state Attorney General’s Office, which typically represents state agencies.

One of the Legislature’s four private attorneys is former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander; another is Nick Brown, the former counsel to Gov. Jay Inslee.

As for the lawsuit, “We were given advice for over two decades that we were on solid footing, which we believe we still are, on the way we handle public-disclosure requests,” Nelson said during a…

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