A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists


By Quill

High court takes on Cheney energy case

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed in December to hear the Bush administration argue that it does not have to reveal who helped shape energy policy as part of Vice President Dick Cheney’s 2001 energy task force.

The case should be heard sometime this spring, and a ruling can be expected by July, The Associated Press reported. Both a split appellate panel and a federal district court have ordered the administration to make information available to the plaintiffs, Judicial Watch and the Sierra Club.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., refused to rehear the case among the full court in September, according to information from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Web site.

The plaintiffs are arguing that the task force’s dealings and makeup should be open to the public. The Bush administration is arguing that handing over the records would mark a dangerous precedent by weakening presidential power.

Survey: Records come slowly in Wisconsin

As similar audits of other states had revealed in 2003, an audit of county and city officials in central Wisconsin showed in December a weak rate of compliance and a wavering understanding of the state’s open records laws by public employees.

The daily Marshfield News Herald in central Wisconsin had its reporters send letters to 20 government agencies, such as city councils and school systems, seeking public records in Clark, Wood, Marathon and Taylor counties.

The paper identified itself solely as a news organization and requested information pertaining to each public entity’s 10 best-paid employees.

Seeking job descriptions, employee names, annual salaries and the costs of fringe benefits — including employer and employees’ costs for health insurance — only five responded to the request within a week. Fourteen responded between two and four weeks, while one took nearly a month to respond, according to a report by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Wisconsin’s public records law allows any citizen access to public information. It also orders records to be disclosed “as soon as practicable and without delay.”

Maine town fights to keep report secret

A Maine newspaper is going to court in an effort to force the city of Auburn, Maine, to release a report detailing police procedure in the arrest of Mayor Norm Guay in August.

City police charged Guay with drunken driving, but the charges later were dropped when tests showed the mayor wasn’t drunk.

The suspicious arrest coincided with acrimonious contract negotiations with the Auburn police union, The Associated Press reported.

City officials hired an independent lawyer to investigate and released a five-page summary stating police had targeted Guay for arrest. The Lewiston Sun Journal filed a lawsuit in Androscoggin County Superior Court in December, seeking access to the 80-page report.

The city argues that the report contains names of city employees, which should make it confidential. It also says the report is not a public document, which would make it sealed.

Court prevents blanket secrecy orders

In a victory for the news media, the California Court of Appeal in Los Angeles ruled in mid-December that a judge may not impose a blanket secrecy order in grand jury-related proceedings that involve allegations of sex abuse by Catholic priests in Los Angeles.

The court, however, refused to recognize a presumptive public right of access to be litigated in trial court.

The appellate court’s 17-page opinion addressed an issue that had not yet been addressed by California’s courts: whether the public and the news media have a First Amendment right of access to “ancillary” grand jury proceedings, which were an offshoot of an already-proceeding grand jury investigation, according to a story on the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Web site.

The proceeding involves a dispute between the Los Angeles district attorney and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles over access to priests’ personnel files and other church records relating to allegations of child molestation by priests. In August, retired judge Thomas F. Nuss, who was appointed as a discovery official by trial judge Dan T. Oki, entered a blanket order sealing all records, transcripts and hearings in the dispute.

That order was struck down by the appeals court on Dec. 12 by a 3-0 count.

Suit argues to open Dean files

Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean said Dec. 7 he will let a judge determine which of his sealed records from his years as Vermont’s governor should be made public.

Dean said on “FOX News Sunday” he has decided to use a lawsuit by the government watchdog Judicial Watch as a mechanism to determine which records should be released and which kept sealed.

In question are 145 boxes of documents that Dean gave to the state archives when he left office in January 2003 with the condition they not be opened for 10 years, The Associated Press reported.

Dean had come under pressure from fellow Democratic presidential hopefuls and Republican officials, who had pressured the documents’ release.

The practice by Vermont’s governors of sealing records when they leave office is not unusual, but Dean chose to seal the records longer than his predecessors, who imposed locks of six and seven years.

The sealed records under question contain dialogue — such as letters from families of AIDS patients — that should remain private, Dean said.

Later in December, Vermont’s Attorney General William H. Sorrell argued that Dean’s records were not subject to the state’s public records laws and asked a court to dismiss a complaint to open the documents.