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Monday, October 13, 2014

Ind. Decisions - "Welcomed clarity: Ruling offers proper access to death certificates"

A Fort Wayne Journal Gazette editorial today praises the Supreme Court decision last week in Evansville Courier & Press and Rita Ward v. Vanderburgh County Health Department:

It's amazing, sometimes, the lengths that some public officials will go to keep information from the people they supposedly serve.

The Vanderburgh County Health Department was so determined to withhold death certificates from the public that it took the matter all the way to the Indiana Supreme Court. But unlike the department and two lower courts, the high court actually took the time to read the law as the legislature had intended it to be read.

The instinct to keep deaths as private as possible is understandable. Public information issues may seem less compelling. Unless, as the Hoosier State Press Association's Steve Key noted, an individual needs to check his or her own family history for the propensity of a particular condition or disease. Or unless “communities (want to) check records to see if there's a correlation between cancer deaths and abandoned or closed manufacturing plants or possible contamination of the water supply.”

The need for open-records laws is built on the concept that officials who have the authority to operate secretly may be tempted to do so, and that governments that operate in the open are by nature more worthy of trust.

In a unanimous opinion last week, the Supreme Court ruled that certificates of death filed by doctors, coroners or funeral directors must be treated as public records, available to anyone.

That is, in fact, what Indiana law has specified since at least 1975.

Writing for the court, Justice Mark Massa noted families' natural desire for privacy after a death.

“We are also mindful,” he wrote, “of the importance of open and transparent government to the health of our body politic.”

“Our General Assembly has considered these competing interests and, insofar as we can determine, concluded that the public interest outweighs the private.” As the opinion noted, the legislature has in recent years specifically rejected three attempts to exempt death certificates from the open-records law.

Muddy interpretation of the death-certificate law has not been limited to Vanderburgh County. In Allen County, death-record-access policy appears to have been inconsistent. Health Department Director of Communications John Silcox said Friday the department's attorneys are reviewing its policy on death certificates in light of the ruling.

In Vanderburgh County, officials confused the law on death certificates that must be kept on file and made available in every county with certifications of death. The certifications are separate documents filed with the state that can only be provided to family members or others such as insurers who can show a direct interest in particular deaths.

Though the two documents contain essentially the same information, the Supreme Court noted that the arrangement parallels access to criminal records that are available through counties but not at the state level.

An Evansville court and the state's appellate court also both appear to have simply misread the laws.

The heroes in this case are the Evansville Courier & Press and the HSPA, which pushed the issue, and Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller, whose office joined them in arguing to overturn the lower courts' rulings. And, of course, the Supreme Court.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on October 13, 2014 12:08 PM
Posted to Ind. Sup.Ct. Decisions