You’d like to believe Ohio’s Supreme Court would be on the side of open governments and the little guy. Unfortunately, it looks like it might be favoring government officials over your right to know.
The Ohio Coalition for Open Government built a spreadsheet of Supreme Court rulings between July 2010 and July 2015, to test the notion that the Supreme Court usually favors government officials when they fight with members of the public about transparency.
Sadly, that point of view seems to be proven true.
The review found 46 cases but excluded routine prisoner cases and the eight cases in which the opinions were mixed too much to fairly be scored as pro-government or pro-citizen’s right to know. That left 32 cases.
Of those cases, only 12, or 37.5 percent, were in favor of opening records up to the public. The other 20 favored restricting or denying access. In a statement, the Supreme Court said it was just interpreting laws.
“The role of the Supreme Court of Ohio in open government cases is to interpret and apply the public records access laws passed by the General Assembly,” according to a press release. “The Supreme Court is not free to use cases to legislate its own views on open government.”
Justice Terrence O’Donnell voted 77 percent of the time against releasing records. Justice Judith French was the most friendly toward citizens’ cases — and we intentionally use this term ironically — as she voted against releasing records 60 percent of the time.
As a watchdog on the public’s behalf, open records and open meetings are near and dear to our hearts at The Lima News. Every citizen should be concerned, though, when their government hides records and meetings that are specifically mentioned in Ohio’s laws.
It’s not simply so we can meddle. It’s so we, as taxpayers, can see that our public officials are doing things the right way.
“We agree that people should keep in mind that there are a lot of factors that go into decisions, starting with the facts of the case, the existing law and evidence as presented,” Dennis Hetzel, president of the OCOG and executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, said in a press release. “Sometimes it means a poorly written statute needs fixing, which was starkly demonstrated by their recent ruling involving Ohio charter schools. A number of decisions in recent years have made it particularly difficult to gain access to government records in Ohio.”
We can’t tear into all public officials, of course. Many follow the laws about public meetings and public records to the letter of the law, willingly cooperating. This study only looks at the ones that kept getting pushed to the Supreme Court.
That also makes you wonder how small this number is compared to the real problem of uncooperative government officials. Lawsuits like these are costly to fight. Publications and members of the public must think twice before sinking tens of thousands of dollars into defending what’s right.
Further, the Ohio Attorney General’s office instituted a free mediation process between governments and people seeking public information, in hopes of limiting the number of cases that must make their way to the Supreme Court.
The good news is the court seems to be swaying back in favor of John Q. Public. Five of the most recent decisions tabulated are in favor of citizens’ right to see documents.
We can only hope this means more openness from our government in the future, with the Ohio Supreme Court’s backing it up.