Archive for the 'Open Records' Category

“Sealed” absentee ballots from 2008 Senate election shielded from public view

November 23, 2011

The Minnesota Supreme Court has rejected a request from several television stations to make public “sealed” absentee ballots  that were never counted during the 2008 Senate election.

KSTP-TV (Channel 5) in the Twin Cities, WDIO-TV (Channel 10) in Duluth, and other Hubbard Broadcasting-owned stations sent letters to each Minnesota county to try to get access to the ballots from the election, which Al Franken won 312 votes.

Ramsey County refused, so the TV stations sued.  The case eventually found its way to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which ruled last week that the ballots are to remain sealed from public view.

To reach the ruling, the court took a highly literal interpretation of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, a law that presumes government data are public subject to numerous exceptions.  Among those exceptions are “sealed absentee ballots prior to opening by an election judge.”

The TV stations argued that such a ruling would constitute a “simplistically literal” interpretation of the Data Practices Act, which is aimed toward making data public and not private.  However, as frequently occurs in cases of this type, the supreme court essentially threw the issue toward the legislature, which enacted the law in the first place.  If the legislature wants to change the law, it can.

Had the ballots been made public, it certainly is possible that Norm Coleman and not Al Franken could have emerged as the “real” winner.  As it stands, Minnesotans are left to guess.



North Dakota looks to Minnesota for help with court-records access dilemma

November 1, 2011

North Dakota’s newspaper and broadcast associations are decrying a plan to limit online access to some criminal-court records.  But the state’s courts system also is looking to Minnesota for help.

The concern is over how easy it is to access online the court records of people who are charged with crimes but never convicted of those crimes.   The easy access access hinders innocent people from getting apartments and jobs–anecdotally at least.

Minnesota has a record “expungement” process by which criminal defendants may petition a court to seal court records.   But North Dakota is taking a different tack by considering a rule that would leave the records in paper files but shield them from online access on a case-by-case basis.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press’ website describes the proposal.  The RCFP also links to a letter from Jack McDonald, a lawyer for the journalist associations, who explains the proposed rule could effectively seal all such data from public view as courts go paperless.

But minutes from the commission’s meetings also demonstrate that court-system staff mebmers have been directed to investigate Minnesota’s expungement process as a potential alternative.

Minnesota’s system still hinders journalists from obtaining truthful information–something that remains a concern.  And the solution to the North Dakota problem would be best solved by providing more information, not less.  For example, teh courts’ website could make it glaringly clear when onetime defendants were not convicted of crimes.

But as it stands, the proposed two-tiered approach to availability of public records chips away at the public’s right to know and vests government with discretion to keep truthful information from the public.

Chris Cook’s name was mud from the start

October 26, 2011

Vikings cornerback Chris Cook has now been charged with felony domestic assault.  Without question, the charges are chilling and disturbing.  But they are just that, of course.  Charges.  Cook has yet to be tried, and on paper he’s innocent until proven guilty.

But in the paper — in the newspaper — innocence is lost when the suspect happens to be famous.

For example, over the weekend, a Star Tribune blog readily identified Cook by name as he sat in jail, waiting to be charged with assaulting his girlfriend.  Yet in a story from May, the Star Tribune did not identify two men arrested and accused of randomly robbing and beating pedestrians in Minneapolis’ Uptown neighborhood.  Here was the newspaper’s explanation:  “The Star Tribune generally does not name suspects until they are charged.”

Wow.  The “general” rule, of course, does not apply when the arrested prisoner is famous.  As for the not-so-famous, even those accused of random attacks, well, um, they deserve, ah …

To be fair, the Star Tribune was far from alone in muddying Cook’s name over the weekend.  The facts of his arrest and jailing were true.  Of course the facts were news.  And unquestionably the media had a right to do exactly what they did.  In the 1989 case of Florida Star v. B.J.F., the United States Supreme Court made it clear that when the news media obtain truthful news (in that case, the name of a rape victim), they have a First Amendment right to publish it free from governmental interference.

I’m the first to support the rights of journalists to make news decisions and to exercise discretion about when to name criminal suspects and when not to do so.  It’s their job.  But the over-the-weekend Cook stories are just the latest chapter in what is a difficult, inconsistent area for the news media to navigate.

Ely newspaper benefiting from judge’s “clear material error”

October 22, 2011

The Timberjay, a scrappy newspaper in Ely, is tussling to obtain documents related to school-construction projects in environmentally-aware northeastern Minnesota.  The paper’s target is Johnson Controls, a conglomerate that contracted to build two schools in the far-flung St. Louis County school district, Minnesota’s largest (geographically speaking).

The newspaper seeks a copy of a subcontract Johnson Controls made with Architectural Resources, Inc., a northeastern Minnesota architectural and engineering firm.  State documents suggest the Timberjay wants information about how much it will cost to operate water towers and water treatment facilities related to the new schools.

Johnson Controls refused to turn over the documents, claiming  Minnesota’s open-records law did not require disclosure.  Last month, an administrative law judge agreed and dismissed the Timberjay’s lawsuit.  But earlier this month, a chief administrative law judge reversed the ruling, characterizing it as a “clear material error” on the judge’s part.

The key issue is whether Johnson Controls performed a “government function” for the school district.  If so, it needs to turn over the documents so the newspaper can write about what it will cost taxpayers to operate the schools.

The latest ruling went the newspaper’s way, and the Duluth News Tribune reported today that a hearing is forthcoming because the  chief judge rejected an appeal.  Timberjay publisher and editor Marshall Helmberger said he fears Johnson Controls is trying to run up legal bills, while Johnson Controls told the newspaper it is simply trying to protect its subcontractor’s “confidential and propriety information.”

Both sides have good arguments, but it’s hard to argue that citizens don’t have a right to know what it will cost to operate their schools.