A devastating blow to public’s right to know

South Bend Tribune

A ruling by Indiana’s highest court allows lawmakers to keep the people’s business shrouded in secrecy.

The state Supreme Court’s decision recently 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.

As Kerwin Olson of the Indianapolis-based Citizens Action Coalition said, the reason for privacy of correspondence between lawmakers, their attorneys, staff members and constituents is understandable. But protecting communications with lobbyists outside the Statehouse is “absolutely absurd.”

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, thanked the state’s highest court for leaving the legislature’s “longstanding practice in place.” But any tradition that allows elected officials to make the public’s business a private matter strikes a devastating blow to the public’s right to know.

This was distributed by Hoosier State Press Association.