Tuesday, April 26, 2016
Ind. Decisions - "A devastating blow to public's right to know" - three editorials [now 4]
A ruling by Indiana’s highest court allows lawmakers to keep the people’s business shrouded in secrecy.Other recent editorials take a similar position. From a Muncie Star-Press editorial of April 23, headed "Your right to know thwarted again." Some quotes:
The state Supreme Court’s decision earlier this month means legislators can continue to withhold their communications with lobbying groups and businesses.
The decision comes in a taxpayer-funded lawsuit filed by Citizens Action Coalition, Common Cause of Indiana and Energy and Policy Institute. The nonprofit groups are seeking emails between Rep. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, and utility companies regarding his solar power bill. The House had denied an open records request for the correspondence, saying the General Assembly is exempt from the Indiana Access to Public Records Act.
In its ruling, the court said that the legislature is covered by the state’s public record law, but that ordering the release of the correspondence violates the state constitution’s separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches of government.
Legislative leaders have maintained that withholding emails is necessary to protect the privacy of correspondence between lawmakers and their constituents. The groups seeking the release of the emails argued that the public is entitled to know about the communications between interest groups and legislators.
The court ruling said the General Assembly has the discretion to determine what qualifies as the work product of legislators and their staff members.
Recent history suggests otherwise. Instead of being judicious in deciding what documents to withhold and what to release, the House has defined “work product” as basically everything, shielding all from the public in whose interests members are trusted to act. And their concerns about the privacy of constituents who communicate with them could be addressed by finding a way to protect sensitive, private information while still adhering to the law’s goal of openness.
Lost in the frenzy last week over Donald Trump's campaign stop in Indianapolis was this: The Indiana Supreme Court made it more difficult for Hoosiers to know what lawmakers are doing.And strong words from the Indianapolis Business Journal, in an April 23rd editorial headed "High court sides with secrecy in legislator email case." Some quotes:
Or, put another way, the cozy relationship between lawmakers and lobbyists was preserved. How so? The court ruled lawmakers can continue withholding email correspondence with lobbying groups and businesses from the public.
We believe Indiana lawmakers ought to put accountability and transparency above lobbyists and enact rules to allow for the release of emails. But that's asking too much of them, unfortunately. * * *
Emails can be an important source of information that affects public policy. It was email that brought to light former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett's efforts to change Christel House Academy's charter school letter grade from a "C" to an "A."
We believe if emails were made public, the state would have lawmakers serving in the Statehouse who keep lobbyists at arm's length. We believe that would make for better lawmakers. And that's something all of us deserve.
The Indiana Supreme Court took a timid and legally dubious course on April 19 when it ruled that Indiana lawmakers can continue withholding their correspondence with lobbying groups and businesses.[Updated 4/28/16] Here is another editorial, from the April 27th Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, headed "Public loses as lawmakers gain records shield."
The ultimate losers from the decision were the people of Indiana, who stand to benefit from an open and transparent government. It’s a concept that is a bedrock of our nation. As our second president, John Adams, put it: “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right and a desire to know.”
Beyond that, secrecy can foster corruption—especially in a state like Indiana with a part-time Legislature. Indiana’s 100 House members and 50 senators have a wide range of other jobs, creating abundant opportunities for conflicts of interests. * * *
The high court [found] the APRA does apply to the General Assembly. But rather than taking the next logical step—concluding the Koch correspondence must be made public—it backed away, citing a 1993 opinion on the separation of powers that concluded the high court “should not intermeddle with the internal functions of either the executive or legislative branches of government.”
Following that reasoning, Justice Steven David, writing for the majority, took a pass on the particulars of the Koch case. “Because the issue before the court would require invasion into a core function of the legislative branch, this court declines to exercise its jurisdiction,” he said.
Taking a stand on such an important case would not have struck us as meddling. After all, it is the role of the judicial branch to interpret the meaning of laws, apply laws to individual cases, and decide if they violate the Constitution. * * *
“To protect communications with lobbyists outside the Statehouse is absolutely absurd,” Kerwin Olson, executive director of the Citizens Action Coalition, told The Associated Press after the decision.
We share his dismay, as should all Hoosiers who care about open government.