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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Courts - "Judge fines Kentucky cabinet $756,000 for making 'mockery' of state Open Records Act "

This dispute in Kentucky between the courts and newspapers on one side, and the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, on the other, has been going on for several years now. Here are a number of earlier ILB posts. This post, from August 1, for example, is headed "Kentucky officials justify withholding details of child-abuse cases."

Some quotes from a story yesterday by John Cheves at Kentucky.com:

A judge on Monday hit the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services with a $756,000 fine for making "a mockery" of the state's Open Records Act and repeatedly withholding information in its files about abused and neglected children.

It was the latest in a series of rulings by Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd in favor of the Lexington Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal of Louisville.

The newspapers sued the cabinet in 2011 for access to about 180 files involving social workers' interactions with children who died or suffered near-fatal injuries. The cabinet released the files, but it redacted far more information than Shepherd allowed, including names of victims and alleged abusers, photographs and criminal charges, and it did not cite its legal authority for the redactions, as the Open Records Act requires.

On Monday, Shepherd ordered the cabinet to pay a $756,000 penalty for its continued refusal to obey the law, plus it must pay the newspapers' attorneys fees and court costs, which will be determined in coming weeks. He also ordered the cabinet to release the files in uncensored form, with the few exceptions allowed by law, such as the names of underage siblings of victims if they are mentioned only because they are siblings.

"The entrenched habits of a government bureaucracy die hard," Shepherd wrote in his decision. "The cabinet has intentionally continued to employ a wholesale blanket approach to withholding public records, despite such approach being prohibited by the Open Records Act and contrary to this court's repeated orders to support any and all redactions by case-by-case analysis."

He added: "This rule of public disclosure in this narrow class of cases involving child fatalities and near-fatalities has been enacted not to assign blame, not to satisfy some unhealthy curiosity, not to sensationalize and not to gratuitously invade the privacy of mourning families. It has been enacted for a single, overriding purpose: to ensure both the cabinet and the public do everything possible to prevent the repeat of such tragedies in the future. There can be no effective prevention when there is no public examination of the underlying facts."

An editorial Dec. 18th in the Kokomo Tribune also talked about enforcing public records laws. Some quotes:
Two years ago, the Indiana General Assembly passed legislation that allows judges to fine public officials who deliberately flaunt public-access laws.

We remind our area’s public officials to give the law serious consideration before the new year.

The law allows a judge to levy a fine of up to $100 for a first offense and up to $500 for a repeat offender.

Indiana is actually late to the party. More than half the states allow civil or criminal penalties for public officials who intentionally violate their open-meetings and open-records laws. In some states, a violation can mean removal from office.

Indiana’s law allows only a fine, but the public official would at least be required to pay the fine out of his or her own pocket.

The law is intended to put some teeth into provisions giving the public and media the right to be notified of public meetings and to access public documents. Under the old law, someone denied access to a public document or government meeting had no recourse other than to take the case to court. This new measure gives public agencies greater incentive to resolve a dispute before seeing a judge.

The new law is not aimed at punishing people. It’s aimed at delivering a simple but critical message: This is the public’s business, and it should be conducted in public view.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on December 24, 2013 10:26 AM
Posted to Courts in general