Court: Inmate entitled to argue for release of personnel files

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A sharply divided state Supreme Court has ruled that a prison inmate was wrongly denied the opportunity to argue for release of personnel files of Washington State Penitentiary employees. He had sought the information in 2004 through a public-disclosure request.

The 5-4 decision filed Thursday overturns rulings by now-retired Walla Walla County Superior Court Judge Robert Zagelow and the Spokane-based state Court of Appeals, and finds that Zagelow was required under civil rules to include then-penitentiary inmate Allan Parmelee as an interested party in a lawsuit. The Supreme Court ordered the matter returned to Walla Walla County to reconsider the matter with Parmelee as a party to the suit.

The lawsuit was filed by the employees against the Department of Corrections to prevent the agency that runs the prison from turning over their personal information, including photographs and home addresses.

Four justices signed the majority opinion, and four signed a dissent that said Parmelee had no right to be included in the court action, and that he had complained about being left out of it too late.

Moreover, the dissent questioned whether the staff members shouldn't have prevailed anyway -- even in light of the state public disclosure act's strong presumption that state records should be open, given that Parmelee had said he wanted the files so he could find "a couple big ugly dudes to come to Walla Walla for some late night service on these punks."

The tie was broken by Justice Richard Sanders, who in a concurring opinion took to task the Department of Corrections for not honoring Parmelee's public disclosure request, and criticized the lower courts, which he said "should be most skeptical of proceedings, such as this one, that have all the earmarks of a collusive lawsuit."

The DOC shirked its duty under the public disclosure act to turn over the records, Sanders wrote, and too quickly joined the employees in urging the trial court to withhold them.

Parmelee, Sanders wrote, "is entitled to the same rights under the Public Records Act ... as any other person."

Parmelee filed the request for the DOC employees' files in 2004, one of several hundred public disclosure requests he filed over the years.

This past legislative session, Parmelee was held up as the poster boy for a new law that limits inmates from using the disclosure laws to harass agencies and government workers. Parmelee, a former legal assistant sent to prison for torching the cars of lawyers who had represented him, filed 788 requests with the DOC in one five-month period in 2005, according to officials.

He now is incarcerated at the Monroe Corrections Center, according to DOC's website.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Charles W. Johnson, said Parmelee, as the filer of the public disclosure request, had an interest in the outcome of the employees' lawsuit, which was aimed at preventing that request from being filled. As such, he should have been given the opportunity to argue his case before Zagelow before a ruling was made.

"It was the right of Mr. Parmelee to request these records, and it was the right of Mr. Parmelee to seek to protect his interest and the public's interest in seeking these records," Johnson wrote.

The dissent, written by Justice Gerry Alexander, said the majority's reasoning could result in an additional burden to records requesters, who may not want or be able to afford being dragged into a legal proceeding if their request is opposed.

The Walla Walla Union-Bulletin contributed to this report.

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