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Thursday, May 08, 2014

Ind. Courts - "Supreme Court hears arguments in death records case"

Today the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Evansville Courier and Press, et al v. Vanderburgh City Health. You can watch the oral argument here. The ILB has had a number of posts about this important public access case, beginning at the trial level. See particularly this post from Dec. 9, 2012, and this one from Jan. 30, 2013.

Chelsea Schneider covered the argumentfor the Evansville C&P. Here is her story. Some quotes:

INDIANAPOLIS — An attorney for the Evansville Courier & Press argued Thursday before the Indiana Supreme Court that cause of death information listed on death certificates should be made available to the public.

However, an attorney for the Vanderburgh County Health Department argued before the state’s high court the release of cause of death information is limited to individuals with direct interest in the matter, such as spouses and immediate relatives.

The basis of the dispute surrounds competing state laws concerning death records and what information is required to be publicly available.

The justices’ questions surrounded how the county health department produces death certificates, how the information is maintained and what information the Courier & Press wants to access.

County health departments submit information on deaths to the state through an electronic death registry system. A law that went into effect in 2011 requires direct interest, such as being a spouse or immediate relative, in the matter to access information off the registry. County attorney Joseph Harrison Jr. told the court the county maintains death certificates on the statewide system and releases them to individuals meeting the direct interest requirement.

Pat Shoulders, the attorney representing the newspaper and Pike County resident Rita Ward who filed a public access complaint when she was denied cause of death information, argued the statewide registry is separate from the health department’s statutory responsibility to maintain death certificates and release them to the public. Shoulders argued the information the county sends to the statewide registry and the death certificate prepared by the last attending physician are two different documents.

Shoulders said the health department has the duty to download and print out the information from the registry, and that the information is public record. * * *

A representative from Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller’s office argued Thursday before the court that cause of death information is public record.

“We are always sensitive to Hoosiers’ privacy concerns but the statute calls for this basic document, setting forth the decedent’s name, age and cause of death, to be a public record accessible at the county level. In keeping with the principles of transparency and accountability, we ask merely for a return to what had been the longstanding practice of making the cause of death in death certificates promptly available to the public who has the right to that information,” Zoeller said in a prepared statement. * * *

The court case stems from a 2012 lawsuit filed by the Courier & Press and Ward against the health department to gain release of the information. The newspaper and Ward argue that death certificates are public records under Indiana’s Access to Public Records Act.

The issue came to a head after the health department, which had provided cause of death information to the Courier & Press for publication on its public records page, abruptly stopped releasing the cause of death in May 2012.

Ward, of Winslow, Indiana, argued the information should be released because of the public health implications the information might reveal.

When Ward requested the information from the health department, a county attorney told her state law limits access to records with cause of death information to individuals with a direct interest in the matter. After the records were denied, Ward petitioned the Indiana Public Access Counselor and received a nonbinding opinion in her favor. The Courier & Press then submitted a new request for cause of death information to the health department but was still denied.

Then-Public Access Counselor Joseph Hoage ruled the requirement for direct interest pertained only to the state’s electronic death registration system, which was created by a state law that went into effect in 2011. Hoage said state law still required health departments to maintain records of death certificates filed by physicians and release them to the public.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on May 8, 2014 01:28 PM
Posted to Indiana Courts