Court denies governor’s motion to dismiss lawsuit over public records

The court unanimously rejected Reynolds’ argument that her office was under no obligation to respond to requests in a timely manner and that she could circumvent the state’s records disclosure law by simply ignoring the requests. The Supreme Court ordered the case to be remanded to the district court, where it will be decided on the merits.

“The governor’s office wanted a rule that it and its agencies could ignore requests for public records without consequences,” said Thomas Story, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, which represents three media organizations. “Instead, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that no one is above the law.”

In a statement, Reynolds blamed delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic on a busy staff member and said her office is now responding to requests for records.

“While we disagree that this lawsuit should go ahead, my office has cleared the backlog of open record requests and is committed to fulfilling our responsibility to respond to all new requests in a timely manner,” Reynolds said in a statement.

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The case follows a 2021 lawsuit filed by the three media organizations and their reporters, alleging that the governor violated Iowa’s Open Records Act by ignoring requests for government records. The reporters had emailed the governor’s office eight separate requests for disclosure between April 2020 and April 2021 and renewed each request at least once, but received no response until a lawsuit was filed in December 2021.

The media organizations are the liberal-leaning blog Bleeding Heartland, Iowa Capital Dispatch, and the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, a nonprofit focused on open government issues.

After the lawsuit, the governor’s office released the records within six days, although some were heavily redacted.

Prosecutors asked a district judge to dismiss the case, noting that the governor’s office ultimately acted on the requests and released public records. After the judge denied the request, the governor appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court.

In an attempt to dismiss the lawsuit, prosecutors argued the complaint was moot because the governor’s office released the redacted records. The media organization argued that the governor’s office’s failure to respond to recording requests pending the filing of a lawsuit violated the Open Records Act, but prosecutors claimed the governor was not required to respond by a specific time limit and would do so be unreasonable for the Supreme Court to make demands on the executive branch.

The state also argued that by not responding to records-disclosure requests, the governor’s office was not actually refusing to respond to those requests.

In rejecting this argument, the court’s decision contained several dictionary definitions of the word “garbage”.

“We conclude that a defendant may either (1) state that he will not produce a record, or (2) show that he will not produce a record,” the decision reads. “And we believe that this second type of denial — an implied or ‘silent’ denial — may be demonstrated by an undue delay in preparing records.”

Although the media organization’s case has yet to be heard in a district court, Story said the Iowa Supreme Court ruling set an important precedent for the open record rules.

“Not only have you reaffirmed previous precedents, but the court has provided additional guidance on how state agencies must comply with these recording requests, and this guidance is very favorable to the filing of open record requests and furthers the cause of transparency in government.” said Story.

Like many Iowa news organizations, The Associated Press is a member of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.

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