NEW JERSEY GETS NEW PUBLIC RECORDS LAW
After two years of wrangling, Acting Gov. Donald T. DiFrancesco signed into law the first overhaul in 38 years of New Jersey’s statute governing public access to government records.
DiFrancesco signed the measure in his last half-hour in office in January, The Associated Press reported.
In describing the bill as imperfect, he said, “This bill represents about 95 percent of what we wanted.”
“It throws open the doors of government like we’ve never done before,” he added.
The old law said that only those government documents specifically required by state law were open to public inspection. The new law stipulates that all government files and papers are to be considered public records available on demand unless a special law or provision seals them. The new law allows penalties against local officials who refuse to comply in a reasonable manner and sets up a state commission to arbitrate disputes without lawsuits.
Joe Tyrrell, president of the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, said the new law needs improvement, but he called its enactment a big step forward.
“We’re much better off today with him signing this legislation than we have been for years,” he said.
Meanwhile, DiFrancesco called on incoming lawmakers to continue to work on improving public access to government records.
WHITE HOUSE TO RELEASE SOME REAGAN PAPERS
The National Archives and Records Administration has planned to make public some 8,000 documents from the Reagan administration, nearly a year after they were due for release under the Presidential Records Act of 1978, according to The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
The papers are a portion of some 68,000 pages of Reagan’s confidential papers and mark the first release of documents after President Bush drafted a hotly criticized executive order designed to redraft procedures for releasing records of former presidents to the public.
The Presidential Records Act, passed after the Watergate scandals, opened most records of a former president to the public 12 years after the end of his administration. However, Bush’s Nov. 1 order allows both a former president and incumbent president to halt the release even after 12 years.
A coalition of historians and open-government advocates, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, filed a federal lawsuit on Nov. 28, claiming that Executive Order 13233 illegally limits access to those records by circumventing the law. The announced release did not affect that lawsuit.
White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, in a Dec. 20 guest column that appeared in The Washington Post, said the initial release debunks claims that the order stifled release of presidential records.
“For months skeptics have questioned President Bush’s motives in establishing these sensible procedures,” Gonzales wrote. “The order, they said, was an affront to open government and would put procedural roadblocks in the way of disclosure of important historical information. The critics were wrong.”
Public Citizen’s Scott Nelson, the lead attorney for the groups filing the lawsuit, said it appears the White House is “trying to get as much stuff out as they can, possibly all of it, before they respond to our lawsuit and perhaps try to say this issue isn’t ripe.”
JUDGE CITES PRIVACY IN BARRING RECORDS RELEASE
A federal judge in Washington cited the privacy of Democratic candidates and possible damage to the party in barring the release of documents that show how Democrats let unions control campaign activities in return for large donations.
The Associated Press in July already had disclosed contents of the Federal Election Commission documents, containing more than 6,000 pages.
The AP reported then the papers showed that AFL-CIO representatives were allowed to serve on state party steering committees to help approve or reject plans for Democrats’ so-called coordinated campaign activities during elections.
In arguing for making the papers public, the FEC told the court that much of the information already was in the public
domain and that the public should know “what the government is up to.”
In an opinion filed Dec. 19, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler dismissed those arguments, saying there must be a claim of illegal activity for the court to consider revealing the names of union officials involved in the probe.
“The confidentiality interest of an innocent accused is, if anything, greater once an investigation is closed and that innocent party is exonerated of all charges,” wrote Kessler, who was appointed by former President Clinton in 1994.
FEC officials ultimately concluded the unions had “apparent veto power” over the campaigns, but they dropped the probe after becoming worried the coordination may be protected by the First Amendment, according to the AP.
BILL SEEKS LIMITS ON AUTOPSY REPORTS
The death of NASCAR race car driver Dale Earnhardt, and the ensuing controversy when a Florida newspaper tried to obtain his autopsy photographs, has prompted a move to restrict public access to autopsy reports in Maryland.
Although autopsy photos are confidential in Maryland, the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has asked the General Assembly to pass a law exempting the text of autopsy reports from the state’s public information act, according to The Baltimore Sun.
If the bill becomes law, only relatives of the deceased, hospitals, police and other government officials would be allowed to obtain a medical examiner’s report.
The reports are written if an autopsy is required and provide details of the circumstances surrounding a person’s death. The reports have been public documents since 1939, but state health officials worry that the often graphic reports can be read on the Internet.
Earnhardt died in the final lap of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, 2001.
In Florida, the Orlando Sentinel, other state newspapers and broadcasters sought access to Earnhardt’s autopsy report and photos for an independent review of why the racing star died.
The Florida legislature passed an emergency law last March restricting access to autopsy photographs in that state without a court order, but Florida media organizations have challenged that statute, The Associated Press reported.