A step back for transparency

(Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel

We’ve said more than once here that efforts to make Indiana government more transparent usually take at least one step back for every step forward. A recent development was definitely not a step forward.

The Indiana Supreme Court recently refused to hear the case of then-Gov. Mike Pence’s withheld email sought by an Indianapolis attorney. It also refused to remand it back to the trial court for further action. Both decisions were unanimous.

The trial court’s original ruling was that the email didn’t have to be disclosed because it was privileged as an attorney-client communication. Officials now have the perfect way to keep a secret. Just hire an outside attorney to send them an email with the information they don’t want the public to know.

Of course, the email in question was shared with numerous public officials in several states, which would seem to dilute the privilege claim, but let that go for now.

The court’s ruling effectively ends the two-year effort by Indianapolis attorney William Groth for documents and emails from Pence’s tenure as governor, his lawyer Gregory Bowes said Monday.

Groth initially sued after Pence refused to release a document attached to an email from Texas Republicans, which outlined a legal strategy for challenging then-President Obama’s executive order on immigration.

Pence’s office turned over more than 50 pages of documents but withheld a “white paper” attached to an email from Texas officials looking for states to sign on to the lawsuit. Pence has argued that the withheld paper would reveal strategies the governors were planning to use against the immigration order, and courts have agreed.

If there’s a silver lining for Hoosiers’ right to know, it is that the court, in letting lower court rulings stand, rejects Pence’s claim that his responses to requests under the Access to Public Records Act are immune from judicial review because of the separation of powers. If that claim had held, citizens denied records by the executive branch would have no course of action.

On the other hand, the court ruled in an earlier case that it could not order the General Assembly to release lawmakers’ email correspondence because … it would violate the state constitution’s separation of powers.

As we said, one step forward, one step back.

This was distributed by Hoosier State Press Association. Send comments to awoods@tribtown.com.