Judge issues narrow ruling in public records case

2014-04-17T15:37:00Z 2014-04-18T10:38:06Z Judge issues narrow ruling in public records caseThe Associated Press The Associated Press
April 17, 2014 3:37 pm  • 

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — A state judge has ruled that elected officials cannot use the Wyoming Public Records Act to obtain massive amounts of internal documents from other government agencies.

District Judge Peter Arnold issued the ruling recently in a lawsuit filed by state schools Superintendent Cindy Hill against Gov. Matt Mead and the state Department of Education director.

Arnold ruled that Hill can't seek the documents as superintendent but can make the request as a private individual.

Bruce Moats, Hill's attorney, said Thursday the lawsuit remains alive because the ruling was narrow and Hill also filed her legal action as a private individual.

Moats said Arnold's ruling is the first of its kind that he knows of in Wyoming.

Attorney General Peter Michael said the ruling had no practical effect on the lawsuit but was important legally in terms of how government agencies work together.

The public records law wasn't designed to allow a public official to "go running to the court to force another agency within the same branch of government to supply records," Michael said.

The lawsuit seeks correspondence among employees in the department and the governor's office related to Hill being replaced last year as head of the agency under a new law that has since been ruled unconstitutional by the Wyoming Supreme Court.

Attorneys for the state have argued that Hill was not entitled to the records in her capacity as superintendent and was allowed only some of the records as a private citizen. The state contends some correspondence Hill is seeking is privileged under attorney-client protections or because the materials are used in reaching final decisions about policy matters.

The state asked Arnold to dismiss Hill's claim to the records as superintendent, which is one of five statewide elected offices in Wyoming.

The records act "did not intend for elected officials to obtain massive amounts of internal documents from other governmental agencies," Arnold said in his ruling.

Moats said the ruling means public officials would have to file records requests as private citizens.

In Laramie, a battle between the city, a City Council member and the Laramie Boomerang over release of the city recreation manager's resume resulted in a lawsuit. However, Moats said the issue of whether public officials can use the open records law was not raised in that case.

On Hill's lawsuit, Moats said the state is releasing some information that it doesn't consider privileged.

He said the state will take a second look at the records to decide what else to release "then produce a privilege log of those that they're going to withhold and then we can contest that if we choose."

Renny MacKay, spokesman for the governor, said in a statement that more than 160,000 pages of documents have been released to Hill so far.

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