Friday, April 24, 2009

Ohio Supreme Court finds little fault in Strickland Administration's response to massive public records request

The Ohio Supreme Court, in an unanimous decision by the all-GOP court, found that the Strickland Administration has largely properly handled the massive public records request by fresman State Representative Seth Morgan (R-Montgomery Co.) requesting just about any record dealing with the formation or the Governor's public education funding reform proposal.

Morgan filed suit in less than a month after requesting that the Governor produce, for example, every email regarding the governor's evidence-based model and education funding. A request that alone generated over 74,000 pages of data alone.

The Governor's office claimed that it was already in the process of responding to the request, but that some of the request was too broad and the rest was under review for redaction of information that under state and federal law is exempt from disclosure in a public records request (since the Governor is pointedly NOT claiming executive privilege, I can only assume we're talking about personal addresses, Social Security Numbers, D.O.B., that kind of information.) The Administration said that it would take them some time to review the materials to redact such protected information before disclosure.

Although the Court granted the writ ("order") that Morgan was seeking, it was under the weakest terms possible. The Court today essentially ordered the Strickland Administration to continue to do what the Court found it was already doing and review the records, redact, and produce them within a "reasonable" amount of time. The Court unanimously agreed that the Strickland Administration's response to Morgan's "comprehensive" request was lawful and reasonable. The Court also found that Morgan's request was overbroad and that Morgan was being unreasonable in his expectation in how quickly he expected the Governor's office to respond to what even State Rep. Morgan conceded was a wide-ranging request of a massive amount of documents.

Furthermore, the Court also found that the Strickland Administration's claimed reason for the delay-- the need to redact information exempt from public disclosure under state and federal law-- was legitimate and reasonable.

The Court, and in the concurring opinion of Justice Pfeiffer, also referenced the political theater motivating the litigation. Political theater like State Representative Morgan and the Ohio Republican Party using the politically inspired lawsuit as grounds to allege that the Strickland Administration was engaged in a "cover up" regarding the Governor's plan to reform public education.

Morgan even lamely tried to label the whole thing as "Evidencegate." He falsely stated that he had gotten no response or information from the Administration when , in fact, it had contacted him and told him that it was working on a complete response but provided a bibliography of sources the Administration relied on in crafting the education plan.

The most laughable line of attack the GOP, and Morgan specifically, have been trying is to say that the plan was crafted in secret. This after a year of publicly held and reported town hall meetings with interested parties to discuss various proposals and then to discuss the plan itself.

Strickland's education plan was crafted in the most public ways possible. It's now also being publicly debated and altered in public legislative committee hearings. Hearings on committees that Rep. Morgan is actually a member of.

What is not public is any Republican alternative to anything Strickland has proposed. The Republicans have no plan to reform public education. None.

The Republicans have to manfacture something to be "outraged" about because they have no plan. They can only hope that by taking potshots from the sidelines they can convince Ohioans that they can do better for Ohio with no plans than what Strickland will do with his.

The Ohio Republican Party is just simply brain dead.

[UPDATE:] The Governor's Office just released this statement from the Governor regarding today's court decision:

"I appreciate that the Ohio Supreme Court acknowledges the considerable efforts my office has taken to be responsive to a legislator’s broad public records request. My office has released thousands of pages of documents in response to this request.

"Each of four document releases included letters inviting the representative to further refine or clarify his request so we could more quickly provide materials focused on any substantive concerns about my education proposal that he may have. To date, my office has not received any indication of any specific education policy areas in which he is interested.

"I appreciate the Court’s finding that the overly-broad request should be further refined, narrowed and clarified. I continue to believe that this effort is little more than a disappointing attempt to detract from, rather than enhance, the ongoing legislative discussion about modernizing Ohio’s education system. My staff will continue working to provide responsive records as quickly as possible.”


Madrigal Maniac said...

Nice post with some needed perspective. Here was the headline at the Columbus Dispatch.

"Supreme Court rules Strickland must turn over records behind school plan"

Could it be more misleading. The court basically said keep doing what your doing and oh by the way we know it's tough.

Modern Esquire said...

The Dispatch article was what forced me to have to write this post. It annoys me that journalist write stories about judicial opinions without talking to a lawyer.

As a lawyer, I could tell you that just because Morgan got the writ (order), doesn't really mean anything. All the writ does, especially in this case, is order the public official to follow the law. Morgan was bound to get a writ regardless of the strength of his legal argument.

But because he got the writ, the media reports it as a win for Morgan also. Not really. If the Court felt that Strickland was flouting the law, then the writ would have been issued in much stronger terms. For example, instead of leaving it up to the Strickland Administration to decide what constitutes a "reasonable amount of time" to still respond, the Court would have given a date certain.

I think the Court largely sided with Strickland and all they did is put the Strickland Administration under the threat of being found in contempt *IF* they don't provide the public information in a timely manner. The Court essentially punting the issue by specifically finding that the dispute was not ripe enough yet to say that the Administration had failed to comply with law requiring disclosure of public information in a timely manner.