South Bend Tribune
A recent court case involving an Indiana resident serves as an emphatic reminder of the power of public records laws.
And whose rights such laws protect.
In this case, a judge rejected an argument from the Louisiana attorney general that the state’s public records law only applies to state residents. Indianapolis researcher Scarlett Martin had requested records involving the attorney general’s dealing with the oil industry. She received thousands of pages in response — but only after she filed a lawsuit in March 2017.
In her lawsuit, Martin said she paid $250 for the requested copies but didn’t get them 175 days after filing the records requests, despite repeated assertions from the attorney general’s office the documents were forthcoming.
The attorney general argued Martin didn’t have the right to sue because she doesn’t live in Louisiana.
State district Judge William Morvant spurned this reasoning, saying, “There is no implicit or explicit basis to say the Legislature intends that we have open public records, but you have to be a citizen of this state.”
So, a fitting ending, a sensible ruling on public records. But wait, there’s a larger lesson here, one for people who think of newspaper investigations when they think of public records requests. It’s a wake-up call for those who don’t see themselves and their rights in these laws.
It’s true that newspapers routinely use public records laws to obtain documents. But these laws are designed to protect the public’s right to know what government is doing in their name. Whether it’s seemingly mundane details, controversial decisions or something in between, such particulars are part of the workings of taxpayer-funded government and the officials who are accountable to the public.
Public records laws don’t protect the rights of only reporters and free press advocates.
They protect your rights.
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