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

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.