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Showing posts with label FOIA. Show all posts
Showing posts with label FOIA. Show all posts

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

State constitutional law offers untapped potential to bolster advocacy in freedom of information

The Vermont Supreme Court relied on the 1777 Vermont
Constitution, as amended in 1786, to support access to
information under the public records act (PRA, or FOIA)
in 2021.
In the summer, two third-year law students published in the Journal of Civic Information a superb investigation highlighting the untapped potential of state constitutional law as a tool in access advocacy in the United States.

Among the many ways in which the U.S. Constitution shows its age is its lack of a right of access to information (ATI). ATI has become a recognized human rights norm in modern constitutions and regional instruments around the world, while the concept in U.S. federal law remains relegated to statute: the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which once was landmark yet today suffers from significant dysfunction. For my own part, I have examined the significance of  this divergence relative to the problem of privatization in the U.S. FOIA and the South African Promotion of Access to Public Information Act (PAIA).  I spoke last month to the U.S. FOIA Advisory Committee re same (HT).

The constitutional lag is not characteristic of all U.S. states.  By the count of University of Florida Levin College of Law students Jessica Terkovich and Aryeh Frank, ATI is recognized in the constitutions of seven states: California, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Montana, New Hampshire, and North Dakota.  In their article, Terkovich and Frank examined case law in these states to see how the constitutional provisions are implicated.

The researchers found that the constitutional provisions were not realizing outcomes in ATI litigation in these states all that different from outcomes that might be reached under the states' statutory expressions of ATI.  Rather than concluding that the constitutional provisions are inconsequential, however, Terkovich and Frank concluded from the evidence that constitutional ATI is under-used as a source of law to bolster access advocacy.

Their reasoning resonates with me.  When I was a newly hatched academic in the 1990s, I was enchanted by an examination copy of a casebook on state constitutional law.  (Lexis and West have current offerings.)  I was never able to swing the course offering, but the subject informed my teaching and research.  Accordingly, I've always encouraged students to consider state constitutional approaches to legal problems.

Often, state high courts recite by rote the default position that they interpret state constitutional rights as merely co-extensive with federal rights; the pairings are construed in pari materia.  The proposition that the free-press-and-speech provision of Article XVI of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights is co-extensive with the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was reiterated recently in the scrap over a Boston flagpole now bound for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Courts might reflexively choose the easier path, shrugging off the burden of state constitutional interpretation.  But they can readily embrace state constitutionalism when it suits their needs.  The Supreme Court of Arkansas long construed the 1874 state constitutional guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure in pari materia with the federal Fourth Amendment.  Until they didn't.  When the U.S. Supreme Court bounced back a state high court disposition as erroneous under the Fourth Amendment, the nonetheless jurisprudentially conservative Arkansas court, in 2002, suddenly discovered distinct meaning in the state constitution to support its earlier conclusion in the defendant's favor.

That result could not have happened if criminal defense lawyer John Wesley Hall had not made the argument.  And that possibility, that the state constitution could mark the difference between liberty and imprisonment, was exactly why Hall included the Hail Mary claim despite longstanding precedent on the in pari materia approach, he once told me.

The potential for potency in a state constitutional claim is all the greater when the right at issue is expressed in the state constitution, but not in the federal Constitution, as is the case for ATI.  And the potential is not limited to the seven states that Terkovich and Frank analyzed.  Just in September, the Vermont Supreme Court extended its ATI law, the Public Records Act (PRA), to shine sunlight on the records of a private contractor responsible for healthcare in state prisons.

Vermont is not on Terkovich and Frank's list of seven.  Nevertheless, in Human Rights Defense Center v. Correct Care Solutions LLC, the Vermont Supreme Court relied on exhortative language—previously held unenforceable by private cause of action—dating to 1786 in the state declaration of rights: "That all power being originally inherent in and co[n]sequently derived from the people, therefore, all officers of government, whether legislative or executive, are their trustees and servants; and at all times, in a legal way, accountable to them."

The article is Jessica Terkovich and Aryeh Frank, Constitutionalizing Access: How Courts Weigh State Constitutional Claims in Open-Government Litigation, 3(1) J. Civic Info. 1 (2021).

Monday, October 25, 2021

Incarcerated persons have access to information in Massachusetts law, court confirms, but not in all states

Image by Ichigo121212 from Pixabay
A man imprisoned for murder has a right of access to public records no less than anyone else, the Massachusetts Appeals Court held in the summer.

Nine years ago, Adam Bradley was co-perpetrator of a home invasion in Billerica, Massachusetts, northwest of Boston, in which 22-year-old resident Quintin Koehler was shot and killed.  The crime was tied to the Bloods gang, according to The Boston Globe.  In 2017, at age 32, Bradley was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to a life term.

Lately, Bradley has used the Massachusetts Public Records Law (PRL, or FOIA) to investigate his conviction by requesting police records.  He alleged in a lawsuit that the State Police records access officer (RAO) failed to respond to multiple PRL requests.

In court, the RAO resisted production under the PRL on two grounds, (1) the ongoing investigation exemption of the PRL and (2) the parallel availability of records to Bradley in criminal discovery.

The Appeals Court soundly rejected both state arguments.  On the first ground, RAO overreached by declaring the entirety of the case file within the investigation exemption.  On the second ground, the PRL operates independently of parallel access in criminal process, the court held.  The RAO anyway owed Bradley a response asserting grounds for non-production.  The state public record supervisor twice ordered the RAO to respond.

The court holding accords with state freedom-of-information norms; the most noteworthy point of the case is that an appeal was required.  As in other states' FOIA exemptions for ongoing investigations, the Massachusetts PRL requires record-by-record review, redaction for partial production when possible, and, if necessary, in camera inspection by the trial court in a legal challenge.

The problem of parallel access is somewhat more vexing, though still should not have confounded the RAO.  Some states expressly exclude active litigants from FOIA uses that might subvert judicial procedure.  But such exclusions, which are far from universal, typically do not bar post-conviction access in criminal matters, even with ongoing appeals.  The RAO in the instant case relied on regulatory language that faintly suggested discovery exclusivity, and the court properly dispelled that theory.

Parallel access questions are thornier when there are state regulatory mechanisms in play that arguably supersede state FOIA as a matter of legislative intent, especially in the area of business regulation.  For example, a statutory framework for state contracting might regulate disclosure and non-disclosure of records maintained by the contractor or submitted to the state, arguably superseding FOIA access.  Even then, the rule of statutory construction that FOIA access is to be construed liberally and FOIA exemptions to be construed narrowly usually makes FOIA a trump card.  Bradley's case presented no such wrinkle.

The case is noteworthy also for a rule that is not at play.  Massachusetts is not one of the states that has limited or simply disallowed FOIA use by prisoners.

The Arkansas Department of Corrections (DOC) lobbied successfully for an amendment to the Arkansas FOIA in 2003 to exclude incarcerated felons from the state definition of "citizen."  Access advocates, including me, managed at that time to negotiate the exclusion down to only DOC records and pro se requests, allowing attorney-representatives to make requests.  Eight years later, the exemption was amended to eliminate the DOC limitation.

It was difficult to advocate for prisoner access.  Incarcerated felons are not a popular constituency and don't vote.  And to be fair to state officials, many dilatory and hardly comprehensible requests emanate from prisons and tie up public resources with no clear public benefit.  At the same time, of course, persons deprived of liberty are susceptible to human rights abuses for which accountability is notoriously elusive.  Michigan public radio in 2016 explored the problem of prisoner civil rights in the absence of access to information in that state's law.

The Massachusetts case is Bradley v. Records Access Officer, No. 20-P-419 (Mass. App. Ct. 2021).  Justice Gregory I. Massing authored the opinion for a unanimous panel also comprising Justices Henry and Ditkoff.  Before appointment to the bench in 2014, Justice Massing served as executive director of the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Service, and previously as general counsel for the state's Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

RIP Russ Kick, eccentric FOIA champion

With images obtained under the federal FOIA, Russ Kick's "Memory Hole"
catalyzed conversation on the Iraq war. Now archived at the Library of Congress.
The transparency community lost an eccentric hero in September: Russ Kick died at his home in Tucson, Arizona, at age 52.

Kick's passing has been reported in many forums, and he was well remembered by The Washington Post and Seven Stories Press last week.  Nevertheless, I feel bound to add my own recognition of the loss.  A self-described "rogue transparency activist," Kick was a legend in the access community.  I knew him only through email exchanges.  I remember him as consistently eager and obliging at the prospect of rallying a recruit to any one of his many causes.

I'm sorry that the Post obit, by Harrison Smith, is paywalled, because it's a thorough and deserved tribute to a remarkable person who embodied the term "citizen-activist" long before it was fashionable.  Kick was a "FOIA frequent flier" who used the "spear" of access law, as Senator Patrick Leahy recently described the federal FOIA, to investigate the many causes that stirred him, from chemical warfare to animal welfare.

Kick had some real wins, too.  His 2004 publication of photos of coffins returning from the Iraq war stimulated vital public discussions about access, privacy, and, of course most importantly, the war itself.  The Defense Department said the photos were released mistakenly.  Vibrant discussions in my FOI class were fueled by those photos and by other content that Kick collected at his Memory Hole website (archived).  Kick's many and varied collection of FOIA prizes persists, for the time being, at The Memory Hole 2 and its "sister site," AltGov2.

Kick edited "The Graphic Canon."
I don't want to be too narrow in my recollection, nor to whitewash Kick's sometimes bawdy tastes and conspiracy-minded inclinations.  His eclectic libraries of content rescued from digital deletion ranged beyond government records to, as the Post summarized, "classic literature, erotica, food and ancient meditation practices."  His literary talents generated a bibliography of the intriguing and bizarre, including a "disinformation" series that touted conspiratorial revelations on governments and sex.  Meanwhile, he edited stunningly artful representations of classic literature in graphic novelizations.

It would be easy to write off Russ Kick as a quaint sort of crackpot.  The Post quoted Kick aptly describing himself: "'I can't focus completely on any one thing for too long,' he wrote in an online biography. 'My personal brand is a mess.'"

Yet with such volume of productivity in so many veins, with real impact that moved the needle to put the demos back into democracy, there was undeniably genius in the madness.  Russ Kick left the world better off than he found it for what he contributed.  Any of us should be so blessed to have the same said of us when we're gone.

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).

Sunday, September 12, 2021

FOIA committee ponders access amid privatization

I had the great privilege last week to speak to the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Advisory Committee, working under the aegis of the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) in the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) on the subject of access to the private sector in the public interest.

The OPEN the Government Act of 2007 augmented FOIA to follow public records into the hands of government contractors.  But the federal FOIA's reach into the private sector remains extremely limited relative to other access-to-information (ATI) systems in the United States and the world.  U.S. states vary widely in approach; the vast majority of state open records acts reaches into the private sector upon some test of state delegation, whether public funding, function, or power.  The same approach predominates in Europe.

The lack of such a mechanism at the federal level in the United States has resulted in a marked deficit of accountability in privatization.  The problem is especially pronounced in areas in which civil rights are prone to abuse, such as privatized prison services, over which the FOIA Advisory Committee and Congress have expressed concern.  By executive order, President Biden is ending the federal outsourcing of incarceration.  But access policy questions remain in questions about the past, in waning contracts, and in persistent privatization in some states.

As I have written in recent years, and examined relative to ATI in the United States, Europe, and India, an emerging model of ATI in Africa advances a novel theory of private-sector access in the interest of human-rights accountability.  I was privileged to share this model, and the theory behind it, with the committee.  I thank the committee for its indulgence, especially OGIS Director Alina Semo for her leadership and Villanova Law Professor Tuan Samahon for his interest in my work now and in the past.

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.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Courts extend European accountability laws to private actors: Italian soccer federation, Irish wind farm

Two recent court decisions in Europe construed European directives on public accountability to reach ostensibly private actors, the Italian soccer federation and an Irish wind-power producer.

Stocksnap by Michal Jarmoluk CC0
The problem of accountability for private actors performing public functions is as old as the corporate form.  Burgeoning corporatocracy in the electronic era has rendered new challenges to the classical public-private dichotomy, in recent years, especially, in the area of social media regulation (e.g., pro and con).  I have written about rethinking this problem in the context of access to information, regarding reform in both the United States and Europe, and I continue to research emerging models in the developing world.  As a general matter, Europe has been much less reticent than the United States to breach the public-private line with accountability mechanisms such as transparency laws.

In early February, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in Luxembourg ruled that the Italian Football Federation, or Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio (FIGC), an ostensibly private entity, is sometimes a public body for purposes of the 2014 European directive on public procurement.  The directive defines public bodies within its purview:

(a) they are established for the specific purpose of meeting needs in the general interest, not having an industrial or commercial character;

(b) they have legal personality; and

(c) they are financed, for the most part, by the State, regional or local authorities, or by other bodies governed by public law; or are subject to management supervision by those authorities or bodies; or have an administrative, managerial or supervisory board, more than half of whose members are appointed by the State, regional or local authorities, or by other bodies governed by public law.

The definition is not unlike formulations in state freedom of information acts in the United States, which tend to press harder against the public-private line than the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) does.  A classic example of disparate approaches in the states concerns access to the wealthy private foundations that lurk behind public universities.  My colleague Professor Robert Steinbuch has been bearing the transparency standard on this front in Arkansas and is supporting a bill there now.

At issue in the Italian case was a contract for porter services when foreign squads visit Italy.  A disappointed contractor challenged the process and won a round in Italy's high administrative court, and the appellate Council of State in Italy referred the interpretation question to the CJEU.  Both in the United States and globally, governing bodies in sport, often set up as private or quasi-public entities, have posed aggravating challenges in public accountability like the university-foundation problem.  Inapplicability of the FOIA to the US Olympic Committee has been cited as a contributing factor in sexual-assault cover-ups, and last summer, I took in no fewer than three books and a TV series on the intractable corruption in world soccer.

The CJEU opinion determined that the FIGC, constituted under private law, can act as a private body when it has autonomy to form private contracts.  However, the Italian National Olympic Committee (NOC) is a public body and has supervisory power, sometimes with a controlling stake, over some FIGC functions.  Insofar as the NOC is calling the shots on contracts, the FIGC is a public body, subject to public procurement rules.  The CJEU opinion now goes back to the Italian courts to parse the specifics. 

Cronelea Wind Farm in County Wicklow, 2008
Meanwhile, in late January, the High Court of Ireland ruled that electric company Raheenleagh Power DAC (RP) is a "public authority" for purposes of the Irish enactment of the European directive on public access to environmental information.  The law and directive define public authorities:

(a) government or other public administration, including public advisory bodies, at national, regional or local level;

(b) any natural or legal person performing public administrative functions under national law, including specific duties, activities or services in relation to the environment; and

(c) any natural or legal person having public responsibilities or functions, or providing public services, relating to the environment under the control of a body or person falling within (a) or (b).

Reversing the Irish Commissioner for Environmental Information, the High Court determined that RP came within the definition's latter terms.  The court explained, "RP is a joint-venture company which operates a wind farm in a forest in the Wicklow Mountains. The wind farm supplies electricity to the national grid."  Complicating the analysis, the RP venture includes a one-half stake by the national-monopoly Electricity Supply Board (ESB), which the court described as "an independent semi-State company."

Like in the Italian case, the court reasoned that ESB control and management of RP brought it within the purview of public accountability law.  The ruling is important for the example it sets amid the wide range of public-private hybrids providing critical utility and infrastructure across Europe and the world.

Even so, I would like to have seen the court hang its hat more firmly on the functional analysis of the cited paragraph (b), rather than resorting to the paradigm of state control.  The urgent communal interests at stake in environmental protection have been a salient inducement to the extension of transparency law in Europe and Africa.  Western social democracies have been keen to ameliorate the effects of climate change, and many African regimes have awakened to lasting environmental damage inflicted by colonial enterprises.

The Italian case is FIGC v. De Vellis Servizi Globali Srl, nos. C‑155/19 and C‑156/19, ECLI:EU:C:2021:88 (CJEU Feb. 3, 2021).  Cain Burdeau has coverage for Courthouse NewsSven Demeulemeester, William Timmermans, and Matthias Ballieu have commentary for Altius in Belgium.

The Irish case is Right to Know CLG v. Commissioner for Environmental Information, [2021] IEHC 46 (High Ct. Jan. 25, 2021) (Ireland).  Mr. Justice Alexander Owens delivered the judgment.  Right to Know is a transparency advocacy organization headed by activist, blogger, and entrepreneur Gavin Sheridan and former and working journalists.  Jonathan Moore and Patrick Reilly have commentary for Field Fisher in Dublin.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

State DA cannot shield FBI records from public disclosure under federal FOIA exemption

The federal Freedom of Information Act cannot be used to block public access to FBI records in the hands of state law enforcement, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled on New Year's Eve.

Rahim in a yearbook photo obtained by CNN from the Brookline library.
In 2015, an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and a Boston police detective shot and killed Usaamah Rahim when he approached officers and refused to drop a 13-inch knife.  Rahim was under investigation by a Joint Terrorism Task Force for suspected ties to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS).  The officers were cleared in the shooting.

In 2017, under the Massachusetts public records law (PRL), the district attorney (DA) gave Rahim's mother access to more than 1,100 documents in the investigation.  However, she was denied access to documents that the FBI had loaned to the DA and designated as confidential.

That denial was in error, the Court ruled.  In conjunction with the federal district attorney and the FBI, the DA argued in court that the loaned records could not be disclosed under state law because the records are owned by the federal government, or, alternatively, that the incorporation of "other laws" as disclosure exemptions in the Massachusetts PRL required the operation of disclosure exemptions in the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and federal Privacy Act.

The Court rejected both arguments.  First, the Massachusetts PRL turns expressly on the receipt (or creation) of records by public officials, not ownership.  "If every public records request also required the requestor to conduct something akin to a title search," the Court reasoned, "then the public would necessarily be stymied in its quest for greater government transparency."

Second, the Court opined that the federal FOIA and Privacy Act both, on their own terms, apply to federal agencies, so are not compulsory on state officials.

Both holdings are consistent with nationwide norms in freedom of information law.  Ownership is sometimes invoked as a useful concept when a state court struggles to discern the difference between, for example, a family photo on the desk of a state employee from the employee's work product.  But as the Massachusetts Court recognized, that analysis breaks down quickly in practice; ownership of records as property is a red herring in access analysis.  The better analysis anchors application of public records law in the laudable statutory purposes of transparency and accountability.  There is no doubt that transparency in law enforcement investigatory records serves the interest of public accountability.

Likewise, the use of the federal law to bind state officials would have been a perversion of the accountability mechanisms in the federal FOIA and Privacy Act, and could be construed even as a violation of the Tenth Amendment.  States have recognized instances when federal laws, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), arguably count as "other law" exemptions in state freedom of information law, insofar as the laws may preempt state disclosure requirements under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution.  But binding state officials to federal law by way of the information at issue, rather than an enumerated governmental power, would be a bridge too far.

At the same time, the Court recognized that some of the FBI records, based on their index descriptions, qualified for exemption from disclosure under the state PRL as justifiably confidential law enforcement records, for example, records related to an ongoing investigation, confidential sources, or emergency response strategies.  The Court ordered the withholding of those records and remanded the case to the Superior Court to analyze application of the state exemption to other records.

The case is Rahim v. District Attorney, No. SJC-12884 (Mass. Dec. 31, 2020) (Justia).  Justice David Lowy wrote the unanimous opinion.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

FOIA scores among John Oliver's three favorite things

Of all the funny takes on an outraged voter's crashing of a Nevada election press conference, John Oliver's takes top honors for featuring government transparency through the Freedom of Information Act.

 

See the full segment on Election Results 2020 on HBO's Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Nov. 8, 2020.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Legal scholars overlook scholarship about state FOIA, but dedicated academics toil for state transparency

Professor Robert Steinbuch and I aim to draw attention to the undersung work of state-law transparency  scholars through our recent publication in the Rutgers Law Record.  Here is the introductory paragraph.

We have read with interest Christina Koningisor’s publication, Transparency Deserts. While there is much to be lauded in the work – all access advocates would like to see more scholarship and publicity about the importance of transparency and accountability – we are disheartened by the article’s failure to recognize the extant vibrant body of scholarship and activism in state freedom of information law.

[¶] We, moreover, find this omission characteristic of a broader ignorance in legal academia of the sweat and toil of legal scholars, scholar-practitioners, and interdisciplinary academics who analyze and advocate for state transparency laws. This blind spot particularly manifests, unfortunately, among those at elite (typically coastal) law schools, who generally contribute vitally to the literature of the undoubtedly important federal transparency regime. These federal freedom-of-information scholars too often neglect the critical importance of state transparency laws – as well as state-transparency legal academics.

[¶] Quite in contrast, state-law access advocates generally acknowledge the value of federal statutory analogs, often referencing federal norms and practices comparatively, while, nonetheless, working upon the apt assumption that state access laws, en masse, have a greater day-to-day impact in improving Americans’ lives and in enhancing democratic accountability in America than does the federal Freedom of Information Act. Koningisor’s article evidences this disappointing tension. 

The publication is Transparency Blind Spot: A Response to Transparency Deserts, 48 Rutgers L. Rec. 1 (2020).  The publication is available for download from SSRN.  

Christina Koningisor, author of the referenced Transparency Deserts, kindly responded on the FOI listserv and gave me permission to share her thoughts.  Included is a link to her ongoing work.  Professor Steinbuch and I could not be happier to engage in a dialog that educates scholars and the public on the importance of state FOIA.

[T]hank you to Rick and Rob for taking the time to so thoughtfully respond to my piece. I sincerely appreciate it. And I take your points of criticism. The article certainly could have benefited from drawing more upon the excellent state-level scholarship that you cite in your response to my piece. I will also be sure, moving forward, to draw more heavily from the accomplished work being done by communications and journalism scholars. The point that I meant to make in my article, and which I should have stated more clearly, is that there is less overarching scholarship on public records laws across the fifty states. Of course, there are excellent state-by-state studies and critiques, some of which I cite in my piece, and many of which I do not, and which you have helpfully flagged in your response. But I was more interested in the work that has been done looking at the state of these laws as a whole. At this level, we can begin to make generalizations about what is working and what is not that are more difficult to observe when focusing solely on a single state. Rick and Rob's response seems to suggest that such surveys are inherently flawed, because they will inevitably be underinclusive and cannot possibly account for the variation across the fifty state legal regimes and the hundreds of thousands of state and local government entities. I agree—I explicitly make this point, and acknowledge the limitations of tackling such a diverse array of laws and government entities in my article's methodology section. But I believe it is nonetheless important to take stock of how these laws operate nationwide, so long as we are forthright and honest about the limitations of any fifty-state survey. I think there is value in and space in the literature for both state-by-state deep-dives and overarching cross-state examinations. Rick and Rob do highlight, in their appendix, some of the broader cross-state scholarship on state public records law that I failed to cite, most of which are published in communications and journalism journals. Again, I concede this point and agree that I should become more familiar with this interdisciplinary work.

I also want to note briefly that my Article reaches a somewhat more nuanced conclusion than transparency is simply worse at the state and local level. I do stress the significant advantages that many state public records laws have over FOIA, including the more rapid response times, the absence of a national security apparatus and classification process impeding access, and, often, the greater accessibility of state and local records officers, among other advantages. I also note that many of these state laws suffer drawbacks when compared to FOIA: many do not have easy and relatively cheap administrative-level appeal options, for example, and the costs of records production at the state and local level can often be prohibitive. Further, although there is no national security secrecy apparatus at the state and local level, it is often exceptionally difficult to obtain records from state and local law enforcement agencies. The piece was in fact inspired by my experiences working as a lawyer at The New York Times, where, in the process of assisting reporters with their federal, state, and local records requests across the country (not just in the coastal states!), I noticed that local police departments were often the most difficult agencies to obtain records from, in some ways even more secretive and difficult to work with than even the federal intelligence agencies. But more critically, the article emphasizes that when these state laws do fail—and I think we can all agree that they sometimes do—there are fewer alternative routes for information to come to light. These transparency failures are exacerbated by broader structural features of state and local government, including reduced external checks from local media and civil society organizations, and reduced intra-governmental checks between the various branches of government. This is of course not to say that every law fails in every instance, or that there aren't many excellent civil society organizations in many places doing critical work on government transparency and oversight. Of course there are abundant examples of such laudable advocacy efforts. But there are also many places across the country where local media institutions have disappeared, civil society organizations are in dire financial straits, and intra-governmental checks are muted. The nation's access laws are remarkably diverse, and contain myriad examples of both transparency failures and successes.

Once again, I very much appreciate these thoughtful and incisive responses to my piece, and I hope to continue this conversation moving forward. I have a new state transparency law-related article, [Secrecy Creep,] forthcoming in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. It is still quite early in the editing process, so I would love to hear any feedback and suggestions ....

Monday, October 19, 2020

Court: Irish officials must justify non-disclosure under FOIA exemption for commercial information

Ireland Supreme Court chamber (Michael Foley CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
In two judgments in late September, the Supreme Court of Ireland ruled that Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) of 2014 exemption for confidential commercial information is not mandatory and that public entities relying on the exemption "must explain why the public interest does not justify release."

In both cases, public entities responding to record requests had been permitted to rely on the prima facie application of the exemption.  That approach fell short of the Irish FOIA's legislative command, the Supreme Court reasoned, because the record requesters were given no information with which to test the validity of the exemption.  The Supreme Court reversed and remanded.

Federal and state FOIAs in the United States also exempt from disclosure confidential information that private entities supply to government when disclosure would jeopardize the private entity's competitive position.  The exemptions operate also to shield public information from disclosure that would jeopardize the government's own competitive position as an actor in the private marketplace.

The U.S. FOIA does not, and state FOIAs typically do not, require that a public agency independently test confidential-information exemption against the public interest in disclosure, essentially second-guessing private owners' confidentiality designations.  To the contrary, legislative exemptions in some states are mandatory, and not, as U.S. FOIA exemptions are, committed to administrative discretion.  Current federal policy permits the disclosure of some statutorily exempt records, but the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) counsels agencies to engage in "full and deliberate" analysis of competing interests.  As to federal exemption 4, for confidential information, the DOJ has opined that such information "would not ordinarily be the subject of discretionary FOIA disclosure."

University College Cork, 2019 (Michael O'Sheil CC BY-SA 4.0)
However, unlike U.S. FOIA exemption 4 ("trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential," 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(4)), the Irish exemption for confidential information is limited by a "public interest override."  According to the Irish law, the exemption does not apply when according to the agency "head concerned, the public interest would, on balance, be better served by granting than by refusing to grant the FOI request."  Public interest overrides favoring disclosure are uncommon in U.S. access-to-information law, except in balancing analyses involving personnel records.

Journalist Gavin Sheridan, 2014 (Markus ›fin‹ Hametner CC BY 2.0)
Decided on September 25, 2020, both cases in Ireland involved journalistic investigations.  In Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources v. Information Commissioner, [2020] IESC 57, journalist, FOI advocate, and founding CEO of Vizlegal, a legal information service provider, Gavin Sheridan (recent profile at The Attic) sought access to a state contract with service wholesaler E-Nasc Éireann Teoranta (eNet) to provide public access to fibre-optic-cable infrastructure.  In University College Cork v. Information Commissioner, [2020] IESC 58, news broadcaster RTÉ sought information about a €100m loan by the European Investment Bank to the National University of Ireland, Cork.  Both court opinions were authored by Justice Marie Baker, herself a U. Cork alumna, with four other justices concurring.

More details and further analysis of the cases are available from Andrew McKeown BL at Irish Legal News (Sept. 28, 2020), and from Bébhinn Bollard, Doug McMahon, and Brendan Slattery at McCann FitzGerald (Oct. 12, 2020).

Friday, October 9, 2020

Could 'inverse' First Amendment save us from ourselves?

Journalism professor Stephen Bates, J.D., University of Nevada Las Vegas, has published a fascinating article in The Atlantic on "the inverted First Amendment," as envisioned by philosopher William Ernest Hocking (1873-1966) in the 1940s.

Hocking on National
Educational Television
As Bates explains, Hocking posited that a correct interpretation of the First Amendment command, "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech," incorporates the command that, sometimes, Congress must make laws that further the freedom of speech.

Post-war America was beset with the perception that mass media were out of control, contributing, as Bates describes, to "polarization, echo chambers, and provocateurs."  That's a good reminder for our times that since the Spanish-American War and subsequent, in part consequent, invention of modern journalism, it's never quite been the idyllic institution of our imaginations.  Hocking contributed a key study to the work of the U.S. Commission on Freedom of the Press, on which he served.

The commission, otherwise known as the Hutchins Commission after chair and University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins, produced a landmark 1947 report.  Concluding that the press is a vital institution in American democracy, the Hutchins Report could have been read as justification for government regulation in furtherance of social responsibility.  The report was read to bolster the controversial development of journalism professionalization and ethics codes.

Hocking's inverse, or positive, First Amendment would have compelled the government affirmatively to protect free speech and even to promote journalism.  This model of positive speech regulation is not unknown in American media law.  In the broadcast medium, because it was not afforded full First Amendment protection, the dubiously constitutional fairness doctrine was instigated by the Hutchins Commission.  In the same vein and medium, we still have, however increasingly irrelevant it is, the equal time rule.  There is some debate over whether there is not some minimal positive requirement in the First Amendment penumbra.  For example, due process in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments may be read to require that a court respond to a complainant's filing—a petition for redress of grievance—if only to dismiss it.

A positive First Amendment could have been the basis for a constitutional right of freedom of information, or access to information, in lieu of the later enacted and oft beleaguered Freedom of Information Act of 1967.  Some states and many countries, not to mention international human rights systems, declare a constitutional or human right of access to information, which may require government transparency and even the affirmative publication of information.

Pres. Roosevelt
proposes a Second
Bill of Rights in
January 1944.

More broadly, the notion of positive civil rights, as opposed to the mostly negative commands of the U.S. Bill of Rights, animates constitutional law in many other countries, especially in association with what are sometimes called "second" and "third generation," or "red" and "green" rights, guaranteeing socioeconomic interests, such as employment, food, housing, and a safe environment, as opposed to "first generation," "blue" rights of a political nature.  ("Generations" models of human rights have been criticized fairly as inadequate, if not patronizing, to describe socio-legal development, but the model is still usefully descriptive in some contexts.)  In fact, some positive, "second generation" rights would have been enshrined in U.S. law, had President Franklin Roosevelt's "Second Bill of Rights" gained traction.  The famously expansive constitution of South Africa well models the codification of socioeconomic rights, while the experience of the courts and the people of South Africa speaks simultaneously to the challenges of making the model work, and the arguable perils of constitutionalizing aspiration.

Prof. Bates
An inverted First Amendment could empower the government to combat misinformation, or "fake news," today in ways that the First Amendment as presently understood forbids.  However, Bates recognizes, such a positive First Amendment would have a dark side to contend with.  A strong interpretation of a positive First Amendment could justify government regulation that would suppress speech in the interest of furthering other speech, just as the fairness doctrine was said to have done.  Critiquing contemporary calls to regulate the internet, Paul Matzko for the libertarian Cato Institute wrote in 2019:

In one of her early newsletters, Ayn Rand excoriated the public interest standard as an excuse covering “the right of some men (those who, by some undefined criterion, are the public) to sacrifice the interests of other men (of those who, for unspecified reasons are not the public)” [1962].

Rand’s words were meant particularly for FCC Chairman Newton Minow, who, in what may be the only famous speech by an FCC commissioner, had described television as a “vast wasteland” and called for limits on the number of game shows, Westerns, and cartoons aired....

.... The more serious danger was the routine weaponization of the public interest standard to advance private or partisan interests. For example, during the early 1940s, the Roosevelt administration pushed for a ban on newspaper ownership of radio stations, ostensibly because of the public’s interest in preventing cross-media consolidation, but also to prevent anti-New Deal newspaper owners from having a radio platform from which to criticize the President’s policies. The FCC during Richard Nixon’s administration would use a similar rule to try and pressure the Washington Post into abandoning its investigation of the Watergate scandal. 

Sometimes the government does, itself, get into the business of journalism.  Yet recent rancor between President Trump and the Voice of America over what the President seems to perceive as partisan disloyalty shows that VOA's very credibility throughout the world depends on its statutorily mandated editorial independence.

The line between government action to protect a negative First Amendment, such as an artistic-value savings provision in indecency law, and government regulation to further a positive First Amendment, such as leveling the free speech marketplace with a must-publish or must-censor rule, is much finer in practice than in theory.  As Bates observes, "Hocking was a philosopher, not a lawyer."

The article is Stephen Bates, The Man Who Wanted to Save the First Amendment by Inverting It, The Atlantic, Oct. 7, 2020.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Abolition of police qualified immunity in Colorado, accountable development lead in FOI Summit topics

Transparency and accountability in contexts including police reform and economic development were on the agenda at the (virtual) annual summit (#FOIsummit) of the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC) late last week.  The conference continues on Tuesday and Wednesday this week.

Rep. Herod
The most provocative panel was on police reform, focusing on California, Colorado, and New York.  Colorado State Rep. Leslie Herod spoke with conviction about the raft of reforms signed into law in Colorado on Juneteenth 2020.  Included was the state's landmark elimination of qualified immunity for police.  Herod explained that the 2020 protest movement sparked an opportunity in bipartisan alignment.  The libertarian Cato Institute, she said, would like to have seen qualified immunity for public officials abolished across the board.  Police were a start.  Read more about the Colorado law from Jay Schweikert at Cato and from Russell Berman in The Atlantic.  The session is available on YouTube.

 

The conference's first general session focused on economic development and offered up another compelling colloquy.  Nothing was settled, but advocates on both sides of the transparency problem pressed their best arguments and pulled no punches.  

Greg LeRoy, executive director of D.C.-based NGO Good Jobs First, emphasized the public money at stake in economic development projects and lamented localities' complicity in the empowerment of unaccountable corporate powers over public services.  He had data from one representative development project showing public investment that could not possibly generate a justifiable return.  Such a transaction is none other than a transfer of public wealth to corporate shareholders, he said.  Good Jobs First has model legislation.  

Bryant (RLB)
Meanwhile Ronnie L. Bryant, principal of consulting firm Ronnie L. Bryant, LLC, pleaded passionately that troubled urban centers throughout America, and the people living in them, don't stand a chance at economic opportunity without offering incentives to private investors.  As moderator Dalia Thornton wrangled the pair to common ground, Bryant proved willing to guarantee transparency before and after negotiation on a deal, but not during.

Caught in the crossfire, Albuquerque, N.M., chief administrative officer Sarita Nair has worked previously on both sides of the divide, and now, she said, is the policymaker having to balance priorities.  I agreed with her sentiment recognizing that, at least, we've come a long way from the bad ol' days of heck-no, everything's-a-trade-secret FOIA exemption.


Other conference topics include access to protected health information during the pandemic and virtual public meetings.  Look for more video replays on the NFOIC YouTube channel.

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.