State high court withdraws ruling on Yousoufian’s landmark suit

Last January, Islander Armen Yousoufian celebrated a state Supreme Court decision considered a landmark in establishing the importance of the state’s Public Disclosure Act and marking the near-final chapter in his multi-year fight against King County.

Last week, however, in a surprise move, the state’s high court vacated its ruling, leaving Yousoufian and his lawyers wondering what will happen next.

“This is very disappointing, what we’ve got going on here,” Yousoufian said, noting that the case has cost him more than $500,000 and evolved over 12 years.

“We’re supposed to have open government,” he added.

His lawyer Michael Brannon said he expects to learn more about the details of the court’s intent within four months.

King County officials, on the other hand, are pleased with the latest decision from the high court.

“We believe it was the right decision,” said Carolyn Duncan, the communications director for the King County Executive.

When the court issued its ruling last January, it provided guidelines to lower courts for assessing penalties in public disclosure cases such as Yousoufian’s — a guideline that looked like it would lead to an $800,000 penalty against the county for its failure to turn over to Yousoufian hundreds of pages of documents he had requested under the state’s Public Disclosure Act.

But the high court withdrew its ruling June 12, after lawyers for King County raised objections about Justice Richard Sanders, who wrote the majority opinion. According to the county, Sanders stood to gain from the ruling he penned because of his own public disclosure case pending in Thurston County.

In a single paragraph, the court stated that it had granted the county’s motion to recall the ruling in part and would hear oral arguments in “due course.”

Yousoufian’s long battle stems from the county’s failure to turn over hundreds of pages of documents he had requested in 1997 about the then-proposed Qwest Field; a referendum asking voters to finance $300 million for the stadium was slated to come before voters later that year.

Ultimately, it took county officials nearly four years and 11 written requests to fully comply with Yousoufian’s request.

Yousoufian sued and won, but the issue of how much he was owed became a judicial ping-pong ball bouncing between courts.

State law says that fines for failing to comply with public disclosure requests can range from $5 to $100 per day but provides no guidelines for judges to set the fine within that range.

In Yousoufian’s case, a trial court set the fines at $5 per day and then $15 a day after a court-ordered review of the decision. In the withdrawn Supreme Court ruling, the court created guidelines that would have set the penalty at close to $100 per day, noting, as Sanders wrote, that a higher penalty is needed to have an impact on government.

“A flea bite does little to deter an elephant,” he wrote in his majority opinion.

Sanders’ public disclosure case centers on his request for records from the Attorney General about a visit he took to McNeil Island Corrections Center, which houses sex offenders, when some of the offenders had cases to be heard before him.

But Sanders, who also lives on Vashon, said in a March letter to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that he would not gain from the Yousoufian decision and that he had consulted the court’s ethical adviser be-fore hearing the case.

The adviser determined that he need not recuse himself on public records cases such as this one.

“In general, recusals are discouraged except in clear instances where recusal is required,” Sanders said in his March 16 piece. “I have recused in many cases where I thought the rules required it, but didn’t need to here.”

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