Showing posts with label Arkansas. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Arkansas. Show all posts

Monday, September 27, 2021

FOIA requesters need protection against retaliation; in egregious case, court allows First Amendment theory

Intersection of state highways 42 & 61 in Conyngham Town, Pa.
(2019 photo by Mr. Matté CC BY-SA 3.0)
A bizarre FOIA case decided by the Third Circuit suggests that use of an open records act in the public interest triggers constitutional protection against retaliation under the First Amendment.

A businessperson and landlord in Conyngham, Pennsylvania, John McGee used the state freedom of information act (FOIA), called the Right to Know Act, to investigate his suspicions of financial malfeasance in town government.  A town supervisor then sent to McGee, you read that correctly, a demand for private business information, purportedly issued in the name of the town and under the authority of the FOIA.

McGee asked the board of supervisors for an explanation, and they refused to give any.  In a lawsuit, McGee alleged violation of substantive due process rights and the First Amendment.  He alleged that he did not know that the town's demand was unlawful and unenforceable.

The district court dismissed both counts; the Third Circuit reversed and remanded on the First Amendment claim.  The court explained:

In order to prevail on a retaliation claim under the First Amendment, “a plaintiff must … [prove]: (1) constitutionally protected conduct, (2) retaliatory action sufficient to deter a person of ordinary firmness from exercising his constitutional rights, and (3) a causal link between the constitutionally protected conduct and the retaliatory action.” Thomas v. Indep. Twp.... (3d Cir. 2006). There does not appear to be any dispute that McGee engaged in constitutionally protected speech, nor that there was evidence of a causal link between his speech and the Right-to-Know request [supervisor Linda] Tarlecki gave him.

Only the middle prong was at issue on appeal, and the court found sufficient evidence for McGee to fend off summary judgment.  The test for deterrence is objective, the Third Circuit emphasized, so it doesn't really matter whether McGee was deterred as a matter of fact.

What intrigues me about the case is the apparently non-controverted question of element (1).  The Third Circuit opinion is ambiguous on what serves so self-evidently as McGee's constitutionally protected conduct.  McGee previously had been critical, in public testimony, of the board of supervisors for how it managed the housing code, but that doesn't seem to be the impetus for retaliation here.  His FOIA request may be construed as a petition of government or as a precursor to further public criticism.  The court did not specify.

In the law of the United States, at the federal level and in most states, requesting access to information is a statutory privilege, not a constitutional right per se.  There is a strong argument that the distinction is immaterial to attachment of the First Amendment right to petition to a FOIA request.  But de facto, in my work in FOIA advocacy, retaliation against FOIA requesters is a real and serious risk.  When asked for counsel by persons contemplating use of FOIA to investigate government, I warn would-be requesters of the possibility of retaliation.

If the First Amendment affords protection against retaliation, it's not an easily won theory.  First, there are practical problems.  Finding an attorney willing to bring a First Amendment claim against government is neither easy nor cheap.  Civil rights litigation and First Amendment law are both complicated.  Attorneys who practice in civil rights prefer the familiar patterns of discrimination and harassment based on race or gender.  In small legal communities such as Arkansas's, attorneys are loath to sue sugar-daddy government.  The thin possibility of winning attorney fees, even with a multiplier, upon a convincing legal victory is not enough to incentivize counsel.

Second, legal problems loom on the merits.  Usually problematic is the third element, causation.  The conduct here in McGee is unusual in its blatant motive.  Ordinarily, when local officials deny zoning variances, liquor licenses, or other privileges to applicants who happen to be accountability mavens, the causal connection cannot be shown to a constitutionally satisfactory certainty.

Element (1) is often a problem, too, because would-be requesters are also often would-be whistleblowers.  Under the muddled constitutional jurisprudence of the rights of public employees, the First Amendment does not preclude being fired for blowing the whistle on malfeasance in one's government workplace, much less the act of filing a state FOIA request to the same end.

There's a cruel irony of inefficiency in our First Amendment jurisprudence in that public employees are least protected when they speak of what they know best.  The jurisprudence rather favors being a team player in government.  Defectors, however righteous, must seek protection in statute, where there might be none.

When I worked on FOIA advocacy issues in Arkansas, before I moved to Rhode Island in 2011, I aided Reps. Dan Greenberg and Andrea Lea with 2009 H.B. 1052, which amended the state whistleblower protection statute with express protection for the use of FOIA.  Opponents of the bill argued that it was unnecessary, because existing law protected state employees in communicating concerns to elected officials.  My experience suggested that an elected official carelessly chosen was as likely to burn a whistleblower as to facilitate accountability.

More aggressive protection of FOIA requesters should be the norm throughout the United States.  Retaliation should not have to be as overtly wrongful as in McGee to trigger protection, whether statutory or constitutional.

The case is McGee v. Township of Conyngham, No. 20-3229 (3d Cir. Sept. 23, 2021).  U.S. Circuit Judge Kent A. Jordan wrote the opinion of a unanimous panel that also comprised Judges Marjorie Rendell and David J. Porter.  HT @ Prof. Rob Steinbuch and Prof. Eugene Volokh (Volokh Conspiracy).

Friday, August 20, 2021

Legal educators tussle over politics in faculty honors

For persons interested in the ongoing tumult at the University of Arkansas Little Rock Law School over the renaming of a professorship after President Bill Clinton (e.g., TaxProf Blog, Wash. Times, Ark. Dem.-Gaz. (subscription)), apparently without faculty approval and with dubious official imprimatur, an August 19 legislative hearing on the matter is online on video.  On the Agenda tab, cue item F, at 2:06:39.

Citing, inter alia, named professorships awarded upon "cronyism" rather than merit, a police officer-student barred from open-carrying on campus in uniform until the legislature enacted a remedial statute, and refusal to permit a political conservative to teach constitutional law, Professor Robert Steinbuch concluded:

It saddens me to say but the law school is no longer an environment for unbiased legal education.  It's a hot bed of crypto leftist wokism unwittingly funded by the great people of this state being used by a select few who pocket a drastically disproportionate share of the resources to pursue their political agendas.

Dean Theresa Beiner testified that the law school decided after 20 years to honor the wishes of the donor who funded the professorship, and then, apparently, did so erroneously.  When a newspaper columnist asked for pertinent records under the state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the law school discovered that Clinton had "withdrawn" permission amid the investigation of his conduct in the Lewinsky affair.

Three cheers for the Arkansas FOIA.  Full disclosure: I was a co-author with Professor Steinbuch and University of Arkansas Law School Professor Emeritus John J. Watkins of the sixth edition of the treatise, The Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. 

A cheer more for the legislator in the hearing who probed the process for awarding named professorships and compelled the dean's admission that the selection occurs substantially in secret under the statutory personnel exemption.  My recollection of the selection process for named professorships at that law school many years ago accords with Professor Steinbuch's more recent experience.  When I worked there, one professor—the same one who raised a red flag over the "Clinton" name—was stripped of his named professorship when he fell out of favor.  A past dean represented that the professorship here at issue had to be awarded to one professor—the one who kicked off the present controversy by using the "Clinton" name—because of the donor's intent, rather than merit, a contention unsupported by the donor.

At the same time, my experience as a law professor suggests that very little in the American workplace works on merit anyway, legal education and the work experiences of my law students informing my conclusion.  The dean's insistence to the contrary is quaint and typical of persons in power, whatever their politics.

The fireworks show (item F) runs about 48 minutes.  The referenced exhibit, a letter from the university chancellor to the committee, is available online.

Monday, June 28, 2021

'Clinton' honorific draws fire at Arkansas law school

"The Clinton Law School"
was not to be.
An op-ed in The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette by Mike Masterson on Saturday reported a mess at the "William H. Bowen" law school at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, since a professor there started calling himself the "William J. Clinton Professor."  The ADG quoted an email from my friend and colleague, Distinguished Professor J. Thomas Sullivan, obtained under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (FOIA):

I don't recall when the Law and Public Policy Professorship was re-named for President Clinton.... I first noticed this reference in the signature block on an email sent by ["Dean Emeritus and William J. Clinton Professor of Constitutional Law and Public Service"] John DiPippa in March.

This professorship was originally designated as the Law and Public Policy professorship and was created, as I recall, after we moved into the current building. There was discussion that the Law School itself would be named for Clinton, but that was scuttled because there was serious concern that he would be subjected to some adverse legal action ... for giving false testimony in the civil action brought by Paula Corbin Jones....

I couldn't find any reference to the professorship as the "William J. Clinton Professor of Constitutional Law and Public Service" on the Bowen web site. In fact, John's faculty page describes him as: Dean Emeritus and Distinguished Professor of Law and Public Policy.

It may be that I missed an announcement ... but I am not aware of the re-designation of the professorship in the name of William J. Clinton or the reference to "Constitutional Law and Public Service." Had this been brought to the faculty for discussion ... I would have opposed the change in designation for a number of reasons:

First, President Clinton was disbarred from practice before the United States Supreme Court and the Arkansas courts following the impeachment trial, in 2000 or 2001. I believe that John took the opportunity to defend him against disbarment at the time, but conceded that some form of censure was appropriate, being quoted at the time by The Washington Post: ... "But DiPippa also said Clinton should be punished more severely because of his position. He suggested a suspension of his license for some period of time. Disbarment ought to be reserved for what I've called incorrigible lawyers—lawyers who are just going to repeat their offenses and continue to harm clients, he said." ....

I simply do not think it appropriate for a law school to honor a disbarred lawyer—it strikes me as hardly sending a deterrent message to law students or practitioners. But beyond the disbarment, I have grave concerns about Bowen being aligned with significant policy decisions taken by Clinton that have [caused] irreparable damage to our legal system.

The mass incarceration of Americans, particularly affecting the poor and African American communities, was accelerated during the Clinton administration in an effort to deflect potential Republican claims that Democrats were/are soft on crime....

Second, the 1994 law shaped Democratic Party politics for years. Under the leadership of Bill Clinton, Democrats wanted to wrest control of crime issues from Republicans, so the two parties began a bidding war to increase penalties for crime. The 1994 crime bill was a key part of the Democratic strategy to show it can be tougher-on-crime than Republicans.

Of particular importance, Clinton signed the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 which effectively eliminated federal habeas corpus as a protection against state court criminal convictions tainted by procedural irregularities and failure of state courts to correctly apply U.S. Supreme Court precedent in disposition of claimed violations of federal constitutional protections.

Sullivan is right about the naming of the law school; I was there then, too.  The money was coming from Bowen, an Arkansas banker—over faculty objections that UALR was selling itself to a donor for less money than any law school had ever taken for the honor—and Bowen's name was substituted when Clinton's became politically problematic.  In the op-ed, Professor Rob Steinbuch, a colleague of Sullivan's and co-author of mine on transparency research, confirmed Sullivan's take on the unilateral impropriety of the name change.

Sullivan wrote further:

Of general importance is the usurpation of faculty governance by the law school administration. At a minimum, the question of re-designating a named professorship should be announced to the faculty for purposes of eliciting legitimate concerns. The faculty originally adopted the rule regarding named professorships that was altered to give the dean sole authority for designation—apart from specific directions given by a donor.

I don't recall whether there was faculty input in altering terms of the original rule, but I do recall the faculty were generally notified of the current rule, as published. In either event, the legitimate authority of the faculty to advise and consent, if not promulgate, a policy that may have significant consequences for the law school in terms of our mission and reputation, shouldn't be dismissed by expediency or political interests of a dean, advisers or supporters answering only to the dean.

Sullivan has his own history with named professorships at UALR.  He was stripped of his in the past for the sin of dissent.  The professorships are better measures of academic-political compliance than of merit.  They're awarded only for five-year terms so as to incentivize continuing obedience to the dean among tenured faculty who otherwise might be hard to wrangle.

Such is academics.  My school, too, punishes anyone who dares not be a "team player," or fails to dumb down her or his own performance to the median.  The problem of "workplace mobbing" to enforce group-think and tame high achievers is so severe in academics that sociologist Kenneth Westhues wrote books about it.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Remembering journalist Paul Greenberg, 1937-2021

pxhere CC0 1.0
In April, our world lost a great American writer: Paul Greenberg died at age 84.

Long a nationally syndicated columnist writing from "small town" Arkansas, Greenberg won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for editorials on civil rights.  In D.C. Beltway circles, he is maybe best known for having given Bill Clinton the moniker "Slick Willie."  But Greenberg was no dogmatic partisan.  He described himself aptly as an "ideologically unreliable conservative."

Greenberg's politics were difficult to pin down, because he resisted labels and simply called the world as he saw it.  His parents immigrated from eastern Europe early in the 20th century, and their experience infused his morality and writing with a libertarian savor.  The same 20th-century-immigrant experience forged me, so I identify with the motivation.  An embrace of liberal immigration policy alongside a relentless insistence on conservative work ethic strikes some in America as a vulgar inconsistency, but, to me, strikes a sonorous chord.

Notwithstanding his famous wariness of Clinton politics, Greenberg was so much more than a political pundit.  A Jew from Shreveport, Louisiana (near my wife's home town), growing up during and after World War II, he was stocked with ample source material to inform comment on the American condition from a peculiar perch of simultaneous detachment and investment.  His writing exuded cultural fluency, from ancient wisdom to contemporary "fadtalk," as he termed it.  A Greenberg column could invoke the prophet Isaiah, philosopher Foucault, and Leonardo the mutant ninja turtle in one incisive analysis and scarce recognition of any juxtaposition.  Greenberg lionized early 20th-century editorialist William Allen White, whom he credited as having said, "A great editorial is one that says something everybody knows but nobody has said before."

A writer's writer, Greenberg wrote thoughtfully and lovingly, but always with profound humility, about the craft of editorializing.  In a column on the legacy of H.L. Mencken, Greenberg wrote of writing:

The first steps in the writing process may be painful as one watches what seemed a great idea fail the test of words, or turn into something entirely different.  But it is satisfying to watch something of form and substance emerge from the inchoate mass.  When it's well done, the writer feels like a sculptor chiseling away deftly at a block of stone.  If done poorly day after day, stroke after stroke, the effect on both writer and reader is more like that of the Chinese water torture.

Library of Congress Gottscho-Schleisner Collection (1950)
Greenberg lamented the gradual disintegration of journalism in the late 20th century and, as a student of Marshall McLuhan, fretted irascibly about the corrosive effects of ephemeral television.  He railed against the anti-intellectual condescension of the bullet point.  He wrote columns to a thousand-plus-word length that felt cordially readable, though a blog adviser today would animadvert as excessive.  (You're 450 words into this blog now; am I not tiresome?)  He insisted, "I remain convinced that anyone will read an editorial if it's irresistibly written."

I knew Paul Greenberg only by reputation and a degree of separation.  To me, mostly, he was a visage of halftone dots gazing into the world from the top of a broadsheet.  Greenberg's son, Dan, is a friend of mine, and a lawyer with whom I've been privileged to collaborate on many projects over the years.  Dan is possessed of obstinate integrity, humble yet profuse intellect, and earnest devotion to family.  So I always have appraised him as an apple that fell close to the tree.

When the news came that Paul Greenberg had died, I had a yearning to read more of his work, especially work that was not tied to the messy milieu of politics.  So I borrowed from the library a 1992 collection aptly titled, Entirely Personal.  The book compiled some of Greenberg's more intimate writings in chapters such as "family," "religion," "the writer," and "the small town."  These works predated my familiarity with Greenberg, so they were all new to me.  They were a treasure to unwrap.

I asked for, and Dan gave me, permission to share one his father's works from the book.  I had trouble choosing which.  I've read Entirely Personal twice now, and I've been struck time and again by how prescient the writings were, and how salient they remain.  There are superficial tells of their place in time—Ronald Reagan, Russians in Afghanistan, and appointment TV—yet, from these circumstances, Greenberg derived timeless observations that are equally meaningful in a world of Donald Trump, Americans in Afghanistan, and mass media overload.  There are surprisingly poignant pieces on family that speak eternal truths.  But, at this time of loss, they make me sad and seem intrusive—too personal. 

I was captivated especially by Greenberg's chapter on religion.  In the introduction, he recounted, "Someone once asked me how much of my writing was influenced by my being Jewish.  The immediate, spontaneous response that formed in my mind was: 'Every word, including and and the.'"  Besides his Jewish heritage and parents' immigrant experience, Greenberg grew up contemporaneously with the Holocaust.  Consistently with his proclivity for self-definition, his views were shaped invariably by witness.  He was, at once, spiritually conscious in his personal life and fervidly committed to the exclusion of religion from public life.

Thus, though it might be an unconventional choice, I found my favorite writing in the book in a column imitative in style.  In 1990, the Supreme Court issued a pair of key decisions on the religion clauses of the First Amendment.  In a case on the Establishment Clause, the Court permitted a Christian student club to meet in a public school over the objection of the school board.  One might expect a "conservative" and staunch advocate for the freedom of religion to applaud the decision.  To the contrary, Greenberg saw the decision as a threat to religion, specifically, to the freedom of church from state, an underlying theory of the Anti-Establishment Clause.  With devilish ingenuity, he wrote a cheeky retort as an addendum to The Screwtape Letters.

In memory of Paul Greenberg, great American writer, here is, "Letter from Below (With Apologies to C.S. Lewis)," published in June of 1990, and reprinted in Entirely Personal in 1992.  I'm not certain I agree entirely with Greenberg's absolutist stance on separationism.  But I understand and deeply appreciate the reckoning of his conviction.  Just as importantly, and characteristically, his witty observations speak also generally, and still today saliently, to the danger of majoritarian usurpation of individual self-determination.

Please note that this republication is made possible by special permission of Dan Greenberg.  The work is copyrighted by Paul Greenberg and is not covered by the Creative Commons license to this blog.

Enjoy.


Letter from Below

(With Apologies to C.S. Lewis)

June 4, 1990

My dear Wormwood,

The best of news. On the first anniversary of another of our great victories, the one in Tiananmen Square, your affectionate uncle happened to be glancing through the public prints, which are second only to television in promoting our cause, when my eye fell on the latest decision of the U.S. Supreme Court concerning church and state, both of which have been our province from time to time. It seems the distinguished justices have been busying themselves blurring the distinction between the two—a work that would be most dear to my heart if I had one.

This time the justices aren't deciding just when a religious symbol has become sufficiently irreligious to be displayed on public property (may they never tire of such work!) but rather how to make religion an extracurricular activity, which of course is what it should have been all along. What better way to keep it from being essential?

It shouldn't be long before the happy impression spreads that religion requires the support of the state, or at least the occasional use of a classroom. It's a start. Experience has shown that the more official a creed, the less appealing. See the paltry interest in the established churches of Western Europe. Or note the disaster that has befallen that most established of pseudo-religions, Communism, in the eastern part of the continent. It's enough to make you weep. 

I loved Sandra Day O'Connor's formulation for the majority of the court: "A school that permits a student-initiated and student-led religious club to meet after school, just as it permits any other student group to do, does not convey a message of state approval or endorsement of the particular religion." Do you think she has any inkling of what it does convey—namely, state approval of religion in general? And a state that can approve religion can disapprove it, too. Indeed, I think approval is much the more effective way to stifle the thing.

Religion-in-general, my dear Wormwood, is our great ally. It should be encouraged at every turn. I can just see the kiddies sitting around homeroom now, deciding which after-school clubs to join. ("I just can't make a choice, can you, Rebecca Jo? Chess, scuba diving or religion, they all sound like fun. Maybe I'll take religion. They say it improves your communications skills. ") It shouldn't be long before faith is treated as a nice, constructive after-school activity.

Religion, the real thing, can't be practiced in general—any more than language can be spoken in general. You have to choose a specific one. Religion-in-general has all the moral authority and emotional impact of Esperanto. Our mission is to replace belief with some safe, state-approved substitute. Once we extend a veneer of religiosity over the schools, the genuine article can be expected to fade away. Better to have the little suckers pray in school than in church or, even more dangerous, at home. Civil religion, that's the ticket, my dear nephew.

John Paul Stevens may represent something of a problem. Thank hell, he was the only dissenter from this lovely little ruling. Only he recognized that it comes "perilously close to an outright command to allow organized prayer … on school premises." Do you think he's on to our game, namely more and more organization, less and less personal prayer? We have to reduce prayer to something else—an extra-curricular activity, another government benefit, an opening ceremony, a public convenience … anything but an intimate experience. That's when it's dangerous.

Only when prayer and Bible study are officially recognized as wholesome activities conducive to better grades and order in the halls will we have defanged the saving thing. The trick is to make it an instrument—a technique, an extra-curricular activity, never a state of being, or all our subjects will be left open to the Enemy. We'll know we're succeeding when school Prayer Clubs start having their own letter jackets. What a great day it'll be when we make religion utterly dependent on peer pressure.

Justice O'Connor says a school can still ban disruptive groups. That's precisely the kind of prayer we want to encourage, Wormwood, the kind that doesn't disrupt anything, especially not our stock in trade: ordinary, routinely accepted, unnoticeable evil. Real prayer can be a powerfully disruptive influence. It can revolutionize the most stable society; never forget what befell poor Nineveh when its people unaccountably listened to that Jonah person against all reason. Yet prayer can also be the one thing that holds people together when everything else has collapsed around them. Perverse, unpredictable thing, prayer. It needs to be put in the care of the proper authorities, namely the state.

Isn't the name of the law that the court upheld perfect? The Equal Access Act of 1984. I love it. The great problem with the First Amendment, which so long has stood in our way, is precisely that it does not provide equal access to religion. Government is explicitly barred from passing any law having to do with its establishment. Religion is set apart, as if it were something holy. Government is told not to touch it or even come close to it. This is intolerable, Wormwood. Only by bringing religion under the state's authority, by rendering unto Caesar what isn't his, can we blur the essence of religion, which is the separation of the holy and the profane. This decision should help.

The great challenge facing religion is not equal access to the world but how to retain enough integrity to stay distinguishable from the world. My fellow demon Glittercut did a good night's work when he invented Success Theology. Our job, my young protege, is to make religion indistinguishable from the world, one more extra-curricular activity. The last temptation—mastery of the powers and principalities—is still the most effective. As the world giveth, so give we.

What we've got to do is get people thinking of religion as something educational, beneficial, a means to some greater social end, an institution wholly worthy of a little government support—a tuition grant here and there, or a place to meet in the schools. We've got to get it on the dole. That way it won't go off on its own with unpredictable results. It needs to be woven smoothly into the social fabric so it can be corrupted with everything else. Left alone, there's no telling where it may spread. The Enemy can be dangerous when left to His own strange devices. Be warned, young demon, He is never stronger than when He appears weak in the eyes of the world.

Have you noticed the enthusiasm this ruling has kindled among many of the faithful? It's an inspiring sight. They've been handed a stone and think it's bread. Delicious.

That's about all the news from down under. I'm still vying with my old rival Gallclaws for the next GS-16 rating in the bureaucracy. The competition here is, of course, hellish. But news like this cheers me.

Your affectionate uncle,

Screwtape

© 1992 Paul Greenberg


Read more from Paul Greenberg at Jewish World Review, in one of his books, or in your preferred news archive.  The Greenberg family plans to archive his papers.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Arkansas defense of healthcare law invites Supreme Court justices to weigh in on federal preemption

The State of Arkansas defended a state healthcare law in the U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday.

The state argued against federal ERISA and Medicare part D preemption of state regulation of pharmacy benefits managers, the companies that manage most Americans' prescription drug benefits.  The case affords an opportunity to see what newer justices have to say about preemption.

Preemption is a curious area of law.  Ostensibly statutory interpretation, it has overtones of federalism, as judges are called on to chart the scope of congressional intent as exercised in a power domain shared with state legislatures.  Confounding theories of interpretation, textualism is often insufficient to resolve preemption problems, because statutory schemes, such as the framework for employment-benefit regulation, may be left ambiguous as to what the scheme does not regulate, yet can be undermined by state laws with incompatible purposes.  As a result, preemption cases in the U.S. Supreme Court have been known to render splintered decisions and odd-bedfellow pairings of justices.  More than once, preemption precedent has been criticized as inconsistent and messy.

In an op-ed in The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (ADG) in 2015, I wrote that Arkansas Act 900 raised serious and compelling questions of federalism.  I didn't pick sides—indeed, each side claims to be on the side of consumers—but I did describe the Arkansas Attorney General's dismissive response to challenge of the statute as glib.  The Eighth Circuit subsequently held the law preempted.  Forty-five states, D.C., and the Trump Administration have sided with the appellant AG, according to the ADG.

The case is Rutledge v. Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, No. 18-540 (argued U.S. Oct. 6, 2020).  Ronald Mann wrote an excellent analysis of the case, on the merits and implications, at SCOTUSblog.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Research for educational opportunity, accountability requires transparency, need not forgo student privacy

When I had the privilege of working on transparency issues in the Arkansas General Assembly in the 20-aughts, two legislators and I promoted a bill that would have required public state universities to disclose data on their use of affirmative action in admissions.

https://ssrn.com/abstract=3658516
One legislator, an African-American woman, reacted with manifest hostility, as if we sought outright to deprive persons of color of access to education.  I wish she would have engaged with us rather than fighting the bill behind closed doors.  It probably would have surprised her to learn that I was motivated specifically by an accusation leveled by an African-American advocacy group.  The group alleged, inter alia, that higher ed was using affirmative action to boost enrollment profiles, for PR and accreditation purposes, but then failing to support those enrolled students' success on state campuses.

I didn't know, and to this day don't know, whether the group's accusations held up as more than anecdotes.  As a transparency and accountability advocate and public educator myself, charged with the responsibility of faculty governance, I wanted to know the truth.  And there arose the problem: It was impossible to do the research, because the universities claimed, even in response to internal queries, that student privacy required nearly every datum about admissions to be held secret.  There was no way to know what students benefited from affirmative action, nor to match those data up with how those students fared.

The access bill ultimately failed, and, to my view, the reason for that failure only made the transparency case stronger.  We were not undone by objection based on equality of opportunity.  We were undone because our bill, which broadly defined affirmative action, would have required disclosure of legacy admissions: that is, when a university admits an applicant because the applicant is related to an alumna or alumnus, especially one who's a donor.  That kind of admissions preference is known to contribute to systemic discrimination against persons of color, not to mention aggravation of our alarming rise in America of socioeconomic disparity.

State Capitol, Little Rock, Arkansas
The hostility of the aforementioned African-American legislator was a warm smile compared with the outrage that poured forth from a white, male legislator, who happened also to be affiliated with Arkansas State University (ASU).  In a legislative hearing, he challenged my assertion that the universities would not happily cooperate with my research.  They would, he alleged, no legislation needed.  He persuaded his committee colleagues to no-pass the bill with a promise: After the legislative session, I should contact him personally for help procuring the data, and he would see to it that the disclosures happened.

The bill died.  After the session, I contacted our zealous ASU opponent, that he might make good on his promise.  He ignored my query and never responded.

My work on that bill fueled an ongoing interest in the interaction of access and privacy in education, especially the interaction of the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), 20 U.S.C. § 1232g, and state freedom of information acts (FOIAs) (e.g., in 2018).  In that vein, my Arkansas colleague Professor Robert Steinbuch and I have just published, Ongoing Challenges in Researching Affirmative Action in Legal Education: Maximizing Public Welfare Through Transparency, 26:1 Texas Hispanic Journal of Law & Policy 57 (2020).  Here is the abstract:
The public good often depends on social science research that employs personal data. Volumes of scientific breakthroughs based on data accumulated through access to public information demonstrate the importance and feasibility of enabling research in the public interest while still respecting data privacy. For decades, reliable and routine technical methods have ensured protection for personal privacy by de-identifying personal data. Social science research into legal education and admission to the bar is presently a matter of urgent public interest and importance, requiring solid empirical analysis of anonymized personal data that government authorities possess. Social science research into the effects of affirmative action represents standard, indeed commonplace, research practice furthering the public interest, while employing established methods that minimize the risk to privacy. Yet, when seeking information regarding admissions standards and success metrics, researchers have faced remarkable headwinds from government officials. In this article, we continue to discuss a topic to which we have devoted significant professional energy: the proper balance of privacy, transparency, and accountability in researching legal education.
Our research grew out of an amicus representation in 2018, alongside Professor Eugene Volokh at UCLA Law.

I'm not here naming the ASU-affiliated legislator only because, these many years later, I don't remember his name.  I have no hesitation in calling him out if someone can remind me.

Pertinently, the data in question are still held secret, in Arkansas and many states.  So my colleagues in FOIA research, including Professor Steinbuch, still would welcome that legislator's help.  It's shameful that this fight for transparency and accountability is still under way all these years later.  It's one thing to adopt a policy position and have reasoned disagreement over it.  It's another thing entirely, and anathema to democracy, to insist on a policy position while willfully concealing evidence of its efficacy.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Photo is 'copy,' court has to explain to city, police in state record access case under Arkansas FOIA

Professor Robert. E. Steinbuch at the University of Arkansas Little Rock reports a startling case under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)—startling because a lawsuit never should have been necessary, much less an appeal.  Professor Steinbuch wrote in opinion in today's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette:
Attorney Ben Motal visited the Little Rock Police Department headquarters to inspect and copy an accident report under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The police refused to allow Motal to copy the report by taking a photograph using his cell phone. He sued.
In response, the city filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that a citizen must choose to either inspect, copy, or receive a government record—notwithstanding the metaphysical impossibility of this claim. How can you copy a record without at least somewhat inspecting it—with your eyes closed?
Then, the city argued that a photograph is not a "copy." Remarkably, the trial court judge, Mackie Pierce, agreed. He said that "if the Legislature wanted to give you the right to photograph public records, they could have easily used the word 'photograph.' They didn't. They used 'copy' and 'copying.'"
. . . .
Pierce also dismissed the case because the city relented after being sued, and it provided the records directly to Motal without any need to photograph or otherwise copy them. We see this type of legal manipulation all the time, wherein public entities comply with the law only after being sued and then seek to Jedi-mind-trick their way out of litigation by asserting in court that "there's nothing to see here—move along, move along."
The result too often is that only attorneys and those who can afford attorneys have rights, because they can sue. If you're a regular Joe, you don't have any rights, say the city and the trial judge, because they've orchestrated it that there's no precedent to protect you when the city repeats the same bad acts they did to Motal.
Reversing, the Arkansas Court of Appeals, per Judge Kenneth S. Hixson, ruled in favor of Motal.  Now the city claims it will appeal to the state Supreme Court.  Professor Steinbuch predicts the city will not succeed, despite a dubiously reasoned dissent by Judge Raymond R. Abramson, who would have ruled the case moot ("these are not the droids we're looking for") and parroted the city's argument.  Judge Hixson was an attorney in private practice before going on the bench.  Judge Abramson was a municipal police court judge and a city attorney.

Steinbuch is right in his reasoning and his prediction.  Shame on the LRPD and the City of Little Rock.  They seem to fundamentally misunderstand that a public record belongs to the public.  They are only its custodians.

The opinion piece is Robert E. Steinbuch, "Photo" Finish, Ark. Democrat-Gazette, May 22, 2020.  With University of Arkansas Professor John J. Watkins, Professor Steinbuch and I are co-authors of the treatise, The Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (6th ed. 2017) (excerpt of prior edition at SSRN), which Judge Hixson referenced.

The case is Motal v. City of Little Rock, No. CV-19-344, 2020 Ark. App. 308 (Ark. Ct. App. May 13, 2020), also available from Justia.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Exemplary court decision pries open 50-year-old murder investigation



Transparency (FOIA, open records, sunshine) advocates, public information officers, and judges hearing FOIA cases throughout the United States should heed a straightforward and concise decision this spring from the Arkansas Supreme Court, per Justice Rhonda K. Wood, concerning ongoing police investigations.  The case is Arkansas State Police v. Keech Law Firm, P.A., No. 16-545 (Ark. Apr. 20, 2017).  Bonus: the case comes with interesting, if tragic, facts.

In 1963, the murder of Harding College (now University) alumna and English Professor Ruby Lowery Stapleton shocked the community of Searcy, Arkansas.  According to the Harding College Bulletin, Stapleton was believed taken from a self-service laundry in Searcy, Arkansas.  Federal and state law enforcement officers and Harding volunteers searched for her for 11 days, and Harding offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to her detection.  Her body was found by a squirrel hunter in a dry creek bed 15 miles from the laundry.  Stapleton was survived by her husband and two children.
Professor Ruby Stapleton in the Harding College Bulletin, October 1963

Stapleton’s murder remains unsolved.  Fifty years later, in November 2013, family members sought access to the Arkansas State Police case file on the Stapleton murder.  The request spurred brief police re-engagement with the cold case, apparently to no avail.  Police refused access to the file under the ongoing investigation exemption of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.  After in camera review of the file, the Arkansas Circuit Court rejected the police theory and ordered the file disclosed.  The Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed.

Ongoing investigation exemptions are a FOIA universal across the state and federal sunshine statutes.  The public policy supporting them is hardly disputed: police investigations require secrecy, lest evidence be compromised or suspects tipped off.  At the same time, transparency is nowhere more urgent a policy priority than when counterpoised with the enormity of state police power to curtail liberty and even life.  This balance proves exceptionally difficult to achieve.  Cases vary broadly in their particulars, and judicial determinations are profoundly fact driven.

Therefore, though the language of ongoing investigation exemptions varies considerably, the question usually boils down to a court’s willingness to defer to, or to second-guess, police discretion.  The Arkansas statute provides a good example of the textual variability, because the statute actually protects only “undisclosed” police records against disclosure.  But that nonsensical oddity has long been construed by the state courts to mean “ongoing investigation,” in conformance with multistate FOIA norms.

In practice, on the whole across the states, courts tend to err on the side of secrecy.  To the frustration of journalists especially, no local judge wants to be responsible for obstructing or derailing a criminal investigation.  Thus law enforcement officials are frequently able to prolong the secrecy surrounding an investigation file well beyond arrest—to charge, to trial, even to exhaustion of appeals.  In fact, criminal investigation files might remain sealed indefinitely, while co-conspirators remain at large—or crimes remain unsolved.

Despite judicial patience that sometimes seems inexhaustible, the imperative of accountability for law enforcement weighs heavily against indefinite secrecy.  The Arkansas Supreme Court quoted a treatise on the Arkansas FOIA co-authored by John J. Watkins, Robert E. Steinbuch, and myself:

Police and prosecutors should not be permitted to apply this exemption as a matter of course until conviction or acquittal, or indefinitely until a charge is brought, if there is no genuine interest in enduring secrecy. To do so would excessively insulate the government against legitimate probes by the public and media into the performance of law-enforcement functions, even apart from the disadvantage to criminal defendants.

Long-cold cases such as the Stapleton murder squarely present this problem.  In reviewing the investigation file in camera in 2014, the Arkansas Circuit Court found “sparse activity” since 1965.  Police cited no documentary evidence of ongoing investigation from 1965 until the filing of the family’s FOIA request.  The Arkansas Supreme Court summed up the case simply: “This is a 54-year-old murder case. No charges have been brought or appear to be imminent.  The victim’s family and the public are entitled to know how the officials in this case, i.e., law enforcement, performed their duties.”

In the course of its concise analysis, the Court reiterated several points of best practices in FOIA compliance and dispute resolution.  These are multistate principles that warrant review.

  • A FOIA should be construed liberally to accomplish the objective of transparency.
  • Inversely, FOIA exemptions should be construed narrowly to accomplish the objective of transparency.
  • As usual in litigation, questions of law and interpretation of a FOIA are subject to de novo appellate review.
  • A trial court should conduct in camera review of disputed records to determine the applicability of a statutory exemption from disclosure.

The Arkansas Supreme Court stated moreover another solid practice point that had been lacking in state precedent:  Also as usual in litigation, questions of fact in a FOIA analysis are subject to the more deferential appellate standard of review, clear error.  As the Court observed, application of an ongoing investigation exemption is especially prone to generate a question of fact, as a qualitative, if not quantitative, assessment of purported police investigative activity is part and parcel of the analysis.  In the Stapleton FOIA case, the Court applied the clear error standard to defer to the circuit court’s assessment of the 1965-2014 police file.

As the Arkansas Court wrote, “A finding is clearly erroneous when the appellate court is left with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.”  Or as the Seventh Circuit famously wrote in 1988: “To be clearly erroneous, a decision must strike us as more than just maybe or probably wrong; it must, as one member of this court recently stated during oral argument, strike us as wrong with the force of a five-week-old, unrefrigerated dead fish.”  A finding that is not clearly erroneous should be left undisturbed.

Finally, full disclosure and point of privilege:  Justice Wood, who authored this case for the Arkansas Supreme Court, was a law student, and then later a dean, when I taught at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law School.  She has shined in her career as lawyer, academic, and judge, undoubtedly owing to her unyielding integrity, character, and intellect—and decidedly owing in no part to me.  Nevertheless, I assert pride by virtue of mere association.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Don't take transparency for granted; FOIAs are always under fire

The 91st General Assembly of the state of Arkansas is winding down; the deadline to file new bills passed two days ago.  Unexceptionally among the states, this flurry of furious lawmaking always entails a range of assaults on the state freedom of information act (FOIA).  In fact, this spring season after the bill deadline is especially hazardous for transparency advocates, because pending bills and so-called "shell" bills, filed but devoid of content, can be quickly amended and rushed through committee with monstrous consequences.  The Arkansas Project, which favors transparency in state government, has written about the FOIA activity in this session, lately here and here.


It happens that this year also has seen the publication of the sixth edition of the treatise, The Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (U. Ark. Press), on which I am privileged to be co-author with Professor Robert Steinbuch and lead author John Watkins, professor emeritus.  Steinbuch has been especially vocal in the media on FOIA, making the case for transparency and holding legislative feet to the fire of public accountability, lest legislators undermine the law.  He penned in jest a cartoon, which he's given me permission to publish here:


Last year the federal FOIA turned 50, and the Swedish Press Freedom Act, oft regarded as the first FOIA in the world, turned 250.  This year, alongside its contemporaries in many states, the Arkansas FOIA turns 50.  Amid all the changes of our technological and populist age--no matter whoever is wiretapping whom--let's hope that Steinbuch's cartoon is only a lampoon at legislators' expense, and not a portent for government transparency and accountability at any level.