The Georgia General Assembly can withhold information from the public, according to a recent court ruling.
The Georgia Court of Appeals ruled that the General Assembly and its offices are exempted from Georgia’s Open Records Act, which mandates that public records be available to the public within three days of a request.
The court dismissed a lawsuit by the Institute of Justice, a nonprofit, public interest law firm, where they sued several heads of legislative staff offices after they refused a records request. The Institute of Justice wanted copies of a 2012 law that regulates music therapy. The offices said they were not required to send the document, according to the final motion.
Georgia’s Open Records Act states:
“All public records shall be open for personal inspection and copying, except those which by order of a court of this state or by law are specifically exempted from disclosure.”
The law also states:
“Agencies shall produce for inspection all records responsive to a request within a reasonable amount of time not to exceed three business days of receipt of a request.”
At issue in the case was the definition of the term “agency.”
According to Georgia code, “agency” means every state department, agency, board, board, bureau, office, commission, public corporation and authority.
The Institute of Justice argued that under this definition, the legislative offices, which included the Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives, the Office of the Secretary of the Senate, the House Budget and Research Office, the Senate Budget and Evaluation Office, the Senate Research Office and the Office of Legislative Counsel were legally obligated to fulfill the request.
Two of the three appellate judges presiding over the case last month concluded that the law does not apply to the offices.
Judge Carla McMillian stated in her ruling that as a separate branch of the government, the General Assembly has “the power to adopt and enforce its own rules regarding its internal operations.”
Chief Judge McFadden disagreed with the ruling.
McFadden wrote that the General Assembly itself is exempted from the Open Records Act but not its offices.
“The clear and unmistakable language of the statutes before us does subject legislative offices to the Act. So we should reverse,” McFadden stated.
McFadden added that in the act itself, the General Assembly speaks in favor of an open government.
Attorneys for the Institute of Justice plan to appeal the ruling.
“Open access to public records is vital in any free society,” said Dana Berliner, senior vice president and litigation director at Institute of Justice. “The purpose of the Open Records Act is to allow people to fully understand how their government operates and how lawmakers and agencies make decisions. Government should not keep secrets about how it governs.”