ndiana Supreme Court punts on legislative access

(Terre Haute) Tribune-Star

Casual observers may sometimes reach the faulty conclusion that Indiana’s legislature is a messy mass of tangled agendas that is fortunate to ever get anything done of consequence.

But make no mistake about it, this outfit is a crafty lot. Even when it does adopt laws based on strong, public-spirited principles, it finds a way to keep its own self-interests at heart.

Such is the case with Indiana Access to Public Records Act. When adopted, it was done so to give the legislature wide discretion about when the law actually applied to it and when it doesn’t. Very convenient, wouldn’t you say? When the public complains that sometimes elected legislative officials don’t have to abide by the laws they pass for the rest of us, this is a prime example.

Indiana’s Supreme Court ruled recently that while the legislature is covered by the public records law, it would not order that it release the contents of emails and other correspondence and would instead leave those decisions to the legislature itself. The court said doing otherwise would violate the constitution’s separation of powers principle.

State advocacy groups had sought release of emails from a specific legislator to investigate whether inappropriate lobbying may have taken place concerning a piece of legislation. They were denied access, then sued and took the matter to the Supreme Court. The court ruling means the public will never know what, if anything, is in those emails concerning the proposed bill. That’s unfortunate. But legislative leaders still have the authority, and the responsibility, to make such documents public.

Transparency in government is essential. That includes legislative proceedings. The court’s ruling leaves an obstacle to transparency in place that will continue to have the potential to block public scrutiny of an important process.

We urge lawmakers to exercise caution in using discretionary powers to withhold communications of its members from public view. Such discretion should be limited. Thorough explanations should be given when they do deny access.

As Indiana’s public records law states, elected officials should err on the side of access when questions arise. We hope to see the legislature demonstrate its commitment to that principle in the future.

This was distributed by Hoosier State Press Association.