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Researching and Using Washington’s Public Records Act

You may be familiar with the term “public records request,” but how do you know if the records you are requesting are public records? What’s the process for making a request? And how long will it take to get the records?

Two red file folder boxes stand upright on a woodgrain surface. The boxes have white labels on them and are surrounded by shadowy lighting.

These questions and more are answered by Washington’s Public Records Act (PRA), codified at Chapter 42.56 of the Revised Code of Washington (RCW). The PRA provides for the maintenance and disclosure of records kept by state and local agencies. Records must be disclosed to public requesters unless they fall under specific exemptions. The Washington State Supreme Court has stated the purpose of the PRA to be,

“nothing less than the preservation of the most central tenets of representative government, namely, the sovereignty of the people and the accountability to the people of public officials and institutions. RCW 42.17.251. Without tools such as the Public Records Act, government of the people, by the people, for the people, risks becoming government of the people, by the bureaucrats, for the special interests. In the famous words of James Madison, ‘A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both.’” Progressive Animal Welfare Soc. v. University of Washington, 125 Wn.2d 243 (1994)

The law’s origin begins with the passage of Initiative to the People 276 in 1972, which established the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission and was intended to (in part) provide the public with information about campaign expenditures and govern access to public records. After surviving several legal challenges, the act became law in 1973 and was codified at RCW 42.17. In 2005 the public records provisions of Initiative 276 were codified into their own RCW chapter.

The PRA’s application to legislative records was clarified in 2019 when the State Supreme Court ruled that the PRA applied to individual lawmakers’ records, concluding “that under the plain meaning of the PRA, individual legislators’ offices are ‘agencies’ subject to the PRA’s general public records disclosure mandate.” The court ruled that the House and Senate, however, are not “state agencies” for purposes of the PRA and are subject to a narrower public records disclosure mandate.

PRA provisions have been argued in several notable state Supreme Court cases. These cases include Nast vs. Michels (1986), Federal Way v. Koenig (2009), Yakima County v. Yakima Herald-Republic (2011), Resident Action Council v. Seattle Housing Authority (2013), Nissen v. Pierce County (2015), and the previously mentioned Associated Press v. Wash. State Legislature (2019). Washington Courts also took action in 2016, enacting General Rule 31.1: Access to Administrative Records which sets out public records provisions for the judicial branch.

A book stands upright with its gray cover facing the camera. The cover includes white text on an orange background that reads, “Public Records Act Deskbook: Washington’s Public Disclosure and Open Public Meetings Laws.” Library shelving, light fixtures, and windows can be seen in the background.

State agencies and organizations have prepared guides to help the public and government officials understand the parameters of the PRA. Here are a few sites to help kick start your research:

Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington (MRSC) — Public Records Act

MRSC — Public Records Act Basics

MRSC — Public Records Act FAQs

MRSC — Public Records Act for Washington Cities, Counties, and Special Purpose Districts

WA State Office of the Attorney General — Open Government Resource Manual

WA State Office of the Attorney General — Open Public Records Act Basics — RCW 42.56

WA State Office of the Attorney General — Obtaining Records

Washington Coalition for Open Government — Public Records Act

TVW — State Supreme Court Public Hearing Regarding GR 31.1

Washington Courts Administrative Public Records

Washington State Law Library — Administrative Records Requests

National Conference of State Legislatures’ Open Government Guide

City and county government, state agencies,, the Washington State Legislature, and court websites also publish guides explaining public records procedures for their jurisdiction. Private citizens and state and local agencies can direct questions regarding PRA and open public meetings compliance to the Washington State Office of the Attorney General’s Open Government Ombuds.

The best print resource for researching Washington’s PRA is the Washington State Bar Association’s Public Records Act Deskbook (KFW462.6. A25 P83 2014). Check our catalog for more state public records and federal Freedom of Information Act titles by running a keyword or title search for “public records.” (LE)

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