UPDATES & ANALYSIS

4.17

Iowa Supreme Court allows open records suit to proceed, saying the Governor is not immune from such litigation

by Rox Laird | April 17, 2023

The Iowa Supreme Court affirmed the Polk County District Court’s denial of a motion to dismiss a suit brought by journalists claiming Gov. Kim Reynolds and other staffers within her office violated the Iowa Open Records Act. In reaching that decision, the Court held the plaintiffs’ claims against the Governor did not violate the Iowa Constitution’s separation of powers.

The case was sent back to the District Court for a trial on the question of whether failing to release public records to the plaintiffs for between 5 and 18 months after requested violated the open records statute, Iowa Code Chapter 22.

The decision in Belin, et al. v. Reynolds, et al., handed down April 14 was written by Justice David May and joined by all members of the Court except Justice Edward Mansfield, who did not participate in the case.

Journalists Laura Belin, Clark Kauffman, and Randy Evans and their respective media organizations claim the Governor’s office violated the Open Records Act. The records sought by the plaintiffs related to information distributed to employees at food processing plants in spring 2020; to the Governor’s decision to sign or veto a bill concerning electric transmission lines; to responses to the media by the Governor’s office regarding charity events at Terrace Hill; and to authorization for the deployment of the Iowa State Patrol to work in Texas.

The Governor’s office argued in its motion to dismiss the suit that the media plaintiffs’ claims were now moot because the requested records were released while the lawsuit was pending. The plaintiffs responded that the records release did not moot their case because the defendants did not provide all of the requested records, and some that were released contained redactions. Moreover, the plaintiffs argued they could still pursue claims for “unlawful delay” in responding to their requests.

The Court agreed with the defendants that the plaintiffs’ claims demanding production of records were moot, except to the extent records were produced with redactions. The Supreme Court remanded those claims to District Court to still determine whether the defendants must produce unredacted records that were withheld.

Which leaves what the Court described as “the most contentious issue in this case”: Can the plaintiffs pursue claims that the Governor’s office violated Chapter 22 through delays in responding to the record requests? “With some qualifications, we believe the answer is ‘yes,’” the Court said.

Under the Open Records Act, a person who believes a government official wrongly refuses to release a public record may go to court to seek judicial enforcement of the statute. Under section 22.10(2), the burden is on the defendant to demonstrate compliance with the Act.

“Refusal” may be explicit, or implied, the Court said, turning to the dictionary definition of “refusal,” quoting one dictionary that says: “If you refuse to do something, you deliberately do not do it, or you say firmly that you will not do it.”

“We conclude that a defendant may ‘refuse’ either by (1) stating that it won’t produce records, or (2) showing that it won’t produce records. And we believe that this second kind of refusal — an implied or ‘silent’ refusal — can be shown through an unreasonable delay in producing records,” May wrote.

The Court disagreed with the defendants’ argument that timeliness claims are unavailable in the case of electronic records, as opposed to paper records. “As a general matter,” May wrote, “chapter 22 does include textual grounds for a timeliness claim. And nothing in chapter 22 suggests that electronic-record requests should be exempted.”

And, the Court disagreed with the defendants’ arguments that, even if timeliness claims are available for electronic records, they should not apply to the Governor because assessing the timeliness of open records requests would infringe on her executive privilege by “enmeshing the courts in answering a political question.”

The answer to the timeliness question raised in this case depends on how the defendants responded, on their outward behavior, not on their thinking or on their internal conversations, the Court said.

“It should not depend on political questions, like whether the Governor properly allocated resources when staffing her office,” May wrote. “And it should not depend on potentially privileged information, like the details of how the Governor was spending her time, or what she discussed with her lawyers.”

 

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