Judge’s strong ruling a victory for Idaho public records law

From the Idaho Statesman

By Scott McIntosh, Opinion editor, Idaho Statesman

Opinion column from the Idaho Statesman ~ Dec. 18, 2019

Reading the decision by 4th District Judge Deborah Bail in the Idaho Press Club’s lawsuit against Ada County over public records was cathartic.

In what can only be described as a smackdown, Bail gave voice to the frustrations that so many journalists — and I’m sure some members of the public — have had when it comes to asking for simple documents that are supposed to be public records.

“Ada County not only did not follow the Idaho Public Records Act, it acted as though a different Act had been enacted — a reverse image of Idaho law,” Bail wrote. “No public agency is free to create its own Public Records Act.”

Preach.

We’ve been upset with the amount of time it takes to respond to requests. We’ve been upset at being charged for records. We’ve been upset at being denied for records that we know aren’t legitimate reasons for a denial.

But most of all, we’ve been upset when a public agency does not follow the state law when it comes to public records.

It’s one thing for journalists to sit in their newsrooms and grouse (we are very good at that). It’s quite another matter to file a lawsuit challenging the records denial. In Idaho, the only recourse we have is to file a lawsuit, and that takes time and money. Even if we know we’re in the right, in today’s anti-media landscape, there’s no guarantee that a decision will go our way.

So it was with some trepidation that the Idaho Press Club, of which I am a board member, decided to file suit against Ada County over what we thought were clearly egregious violations of the state’s public records law.

Bail agreed, and in her decision released Friday, ruling in favor of the Idaho Press Club and ordering Ada County to pay all attorney fees and court costs, her words were clear and strong.

“It is absolutely remarkable that Ada County would claim privilege for the name of an attorney and the stock confidentiality notice,” Bail wrote.

“Ada County’s approach to handling the Idaho Public Records Act requests in this case was troubling.”

“Ada County’s refusal to provide records was frivolous and it has frivolously pursued its positions in this case.”

“The Court finds that the evidence is overwhelming that public records were improperly and frivolously withheld.”

“Moreover, it has not met its burden in this Court of proving that the documents requested fit within one of the statutory exemptions. Ada County has not met its responsibilities under the Idaho Public Records Act.”

“Ada County did not adequately detail its costs for production of the public records.”

“Most seriously, the vague denials for: ‘Attorney-Client Privilege, Personnel Information, Privacy, and Deliberative Process Privilege’ do not satisfy Ada County’s burden under the Idaho Public Records Act.”

“There is no basis for this Court to adopt the amorphous privacy exemption argued for by Ada County.”

“The broad ‘Privacy’ basis for not providing public records information requested as argued by Ada County has no basis in any specific exemption or anywhere else in Idaho law.”

Judge Bail’s decision should be required reading for every lawyer who represents a fire district, a city, a school district or a gopher district in the state of Idaho.

This ruling was a vindication that we’re not just complaining for the sake of complaining. We recognize there are legitimate exemptions to public records law, and when presented with the legitimate and legally accurate statutory claims for exemption, we understand. But when public agencies run afoul of the state law, it’s incumbent upon us to call them out on it.

And it’s not just a victory for journalists; it’s a victory for the public, on whose behalf we are seeking these records.

Hopefully, in the wake of this unambiguous ruling, public agencies will get it right the first time and won’t find themselves wasting taxpayer dollars getting a smackdown in court.

From the Idaho Statesman

Not an IDOG member yet?