Precinct 333

Monday, March 21, 2005

Putting Clouds Into Sunshine Laws

Virtually every state has some form of "Sunshine Law", designed to ensure public access to government meetings and government access. After all, in a representative democracy like ours, the people have to know what's going on, right?

Well, that isn't the position held by some folks down in North Carolina. They want local government and state agencies authorized to sue individuals who file open records requests, so as to block their access to meetings and documents.

Lawyers for local governments and the University of North Carolina are talking about pursuing a measure to allow pre-emptive lawsuits against citizens, news organizations and private companies to clarify the law when there is a dispute about providing records or opening meetings.

On another front, the city of Burlington is appealing a ruling last year by the state Court of Appeals that said the government can't take people to court to try to block their access to records or meetings.

Citizens can sue the government over records, the appeals court said, but not the reverse. The state Supreme Court takes up that case next month and is expected to settle the issue.

North Carolina's League of Municipalities supports Burlington.

"It makes sense to ask a court what the law is when there's a dispute about the Open Meetings Law, just like when there's a dispute about anything else," said Ellis Hankins, the league's executive director.

"We need to have open government," he said. "But governments need to operate. And there are unanswered legal questions."

The cities say they want to use an ordinary tool often deployed in other kinds of legal disputes, called a "declaratory judgment," to let judges settle disagreements about public access to records or meetings.

The problem is that this will make it less likely that the people will attempt to find out about their own government. After all, are you going to go down to the courthouse and request public records if that request could result in the need to hire a lawyer to defend yourself from the very government that the law supposedly requires give you access?

This is a bad idea. Let's hoe the North Carolina Supreme Court and the legislature slap the notion down.


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