Gov. Mike Pence is using a recent Indiana Supreme Court decision to argue that he should not be required to release documents that have been deemed by law to be public records.
The Indiana Supreme Court ruled April 19 that it won’t compel lawmakers to release their emails to the public, even though it said the Access to Public Records Act applies to the General Assembly. The court said the separation of powers in the Indiana Constitution means the courts should not tread on lawmakers’ turf.
Now, Pence wants that same logic applied to him.
Of course he does. He also wanted to operate his very own “news bureau,” so that “news” would portray him in a favorable light.
The Indiana Supreme Court’s decision in the recent Koch case dismayed the legal community, for a number of reasons. The Court cited separation of powers–saying that it lacked the authority to overrule the legislature’s own interpretation of the law requiring disclosure.
In the Koch case, Citizens Action Coalition and two other groups the tried to get access to emails between utility companies and Rep. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, who is chairman of the House Energy Committee. The Supreme Court found that determining whether those documents counted under the APRA as legislative work is a “non-justiciable question,” meaning a matter it cannot adjudicate.
In the immigration case, Groth requested the contract the governor entered into with Barnes & Thornburg, who sued for the state instead of Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller, as well as copies of firm’s invoices. He also sought emails between the Texas Attorney General, who led the suit, and Pence’s office.
But the documents Groth received back were “heavily redacted,” he said, so he complained to the Public Access Counselor and ultimately filed the suit.
What is at stake here is a basic tenet of good government: are citizens entitled to information about contracts that their elected officials have entered into? Information about the expenses involved? The usual answer is: yes. That’s what is meant by transparency–an important aspect of democratic governance.
If voters cannot access information about the way their government works, they lack important information on which to base their votes. We call that sort of information “accountability.”
Public access advocates say their fears about the recent Indiana Supreme Court decision are already coming true.
Kerwin Olson, executive director of the Citizens Action Coalition, said he was worried the Supreme Court case would have negative, far-reaching implications, and this appears to be one of them.
“The Pence administration is already citing Koch as an additional authority to deny releasing government documents,” Olson said. “it’s quite astonishing and troubling. It further shuts the door to accountability and transparency in government when we should be going the opposite direction.”
The Indiana Supreme Court’s ruling is troubling, and not just because it is an open invitation to Mike Pence and the legislature to shield their actions from the voters. As Steve Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association, noted
“If the judiciary takes this position, it would eviscerate the Access to Public Records Act because every agency would argue that a judge shouldn’t judge whether a document should be released under an APRA request if the agency’s position is that the record is part of its internal operations,” Key said. “The public’s ability to hold government officials accountable would be greatly hamstrung by such a policy.”