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Washington Supreme Court Upholds Decision Against State Attorney General for Failure to Comply with Public Records Act

On September 16, 2010, the Supreme Court of the State of Washington, sitting en banc, upheld a lower court’s finding that the Attorney General’s Office had failed to produce requested documents under the state’s Public Records Act and failed to provide a brief explanation as to why certain withheld documents were exempt from disclosure. As a result, the plaintiff, Justice Richard B. Sanders, was awarded costs and attorney’s fees due to those violations.

Justice Sanders had been the recipient of a complaint filed by Washington’s Commission on Judicial Conduct, and sued to compel the Attorney General to defend him at public expense. Subsequently, Justice Sanders delivered a public records request to the Attorney General for all records pertinent to the Commission’s complaint. The complaint related to an incident in which Justice Sanders had visited Washington’s Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island and spoke with civilly-committed sex offenders held at that facility.

Although the Attorney General’s response included 1,000 pages of documents and a document index, Justice Sanders filed a lawsuit alleging that the Attorney General had violated the Public Records Act “by failing to provide a brief explanation of how its claimed exemptions applied to each record withheld and by withholding non-exempt documents.”

While the trial court agreed that 95% of the withheld documents were indeed exempt from disclosure, the court also found that the lack of an explanation and the withholding of certain non-exempt documents was wrongful. The court awarded Justice Sanders 37.5% of his fees and costs, amounting to $55,443.12, and imposed $18,112 in statutory penalties against the Attorney General’s Office.

The Washington Supreme Court affirmed on appeal, upholding the trial court’s decisions as to all issues except an interpretation of attorney-client privilege and certain exemptions claimed for specific documents. The Supreme Court also awarded Justice Sanders 25% of his attorney’s fees and costs on appeal. See: Sanders v. State of Washington, 169 Wash.2d 827, 240 P.3d 120 (Wash. 2010).

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Related legal case

Sanders v. State of Washington