Advertisement
  1. Opinion

Editorial: Big win for public records at Florida Supreme Court

The Florida Supreme Court took an important step this week to preserve the constitutional right to inspect and copy public records that is a cornerstone to government-in-the-sunshine.
Published Apr. 15, 2016

The Florida Supreme Court took an important step this week to preserve the constitutional right to inspect and copy public records that is a cornerstone of government in the sunshine. The court ruled 5-2 that public agencies that violate public records laws are liable for the legal fees of citizens whose only recourse is to file a lawsuit when they are denied access to records. That is an important victory for openness in an era when public records laws are routinely under attack from the Legislature and many local governments.

The court's straightforward opinion issued Thursday involved the board of trustees of the Jacksonville Police and Fire Pension Fund. A citizen sought public records from the fund, which attempted to impose special fees and conditions before allowing him to inspect or copy the records. The citizen filed a lawsuit, and a trial court found the pension fund violated public records laws by trying to impose an hourly photocopying fee and an hourly supervisory fee. Yet the court refused to force the pension fund to pay the citizen's legal fees, finding that the pension fund's violations were "not knowing, willful or done with a malicious intent.''

State law has been clear for more than 30 years on this question of requiring public agencies to pay legal fees when they violate public records laws. It says the courts "shall" award legal fees in those situations, and it leaves no out for government officials to claim they did not intend to violate the law. Yet different state appellate courts have taken different sides of this issue in recent years, and the Supreme Court wisely used this opportunity to re-establish the straightforward standard for awarding legal fees that does not allow public agencies to get off the hook by claiming they just didn't know they were violating the law.

The importance of maintaining the unambiguous requirement for public agencies to pay legal fees when they illegally withhold public records cannot be overstated. As Justice Barbara Pariente noted in the court's majority opinion, that provision "has the dual role of both deterring agencies from wrongfully denying access to public records and encouraging individuals to continue pursuing their right to access public records." If public agencies could avoid paying the legal fees by pleading ignorance, that would make it less likely citizens would go to court to get access to public records and more likely some public officials would refuse to provide records they would prefer to keep secret. It's disappointing that Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston, the court's most conservative members, dissented and would give public agencies an out.

The court's opinion comes just after the Florida League of Cities pushed hard for the Legislature to make it more difficult to collect legal fees from public agencies that violate public records laws. The cities cited isolated examples where local governments feel inundated by public records lawsuits they claim are motivated by generating legal fees rather than by genuine interest in keeping tabs on public business. The League of Women Voters of Florida and the First Amendment Foundation (disclosure: The Tampa Bay Times is a foundation member and editor of editorials Tim Nickens is a foundation board member) opposed the legislation, and the original version and a negotiated compromise failed to pass. That is for the best.

Now the Supreme Court has smartly reaffirmed the ability of citizens to protect their constitutional right to access public records. Rather than try to undo the court opinion by changing the law on legal fees, state lawmakers should be seeking ways to expand government in the sunshine.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Ayana Lage, 26, and Vagner Lage, 27, pose with a sonogram of their unborn child. Ayana writes openly about going through a miscarriage due to the baby having a rare genetic defect. She wonders why more women don't discuss their miscarriages. JOHN PENDYGRAFT   |  Times
    Sunday’s letters to the editor
  2. Kreshae Humphrey, 26, applies ointments to the skin of her 3-year-old daughter, Nevaeh Soto De Jesus, after bathing her in bottled water. The parents bathe all three of their girls with bottled water because they believe the children were sickened by the tap water at the Southern Comfort mobile home park off U.S. 19 in Clearwater. The family is suing the park's owner over the issue, but the owner and the state say there are no problems with the drinking water there. MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE  |  Times
    The story of a Clearwater mobile home park and its water issues reflects a systemic breakdown.
  3. A long stretch of US 98 remains closed for repairs in Mexico Beach on Friday, September 27, 2019, almost one year after Hurricane Michael made landfall in the small coastal town. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Time is running out, so let’s get practical, says Craig Fugate
  4. Earlier today• Opinion
    FROM PRINT: Adam Goodman, national Republican media consultant
    Sure, fix capitalism’s flaws, but a wealth tax is not the way. | Adam Goodman
  5. 
 CLAY BENNETT  |  Chattanooga Times Free Press
  6. A view of the downtown St. Petersburg skyline and waterfront from over Tampa Bay.
    The news that the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corporation wants to change its name to include “Tampa Bay” has been met with resistance.
  7. Catherine Rampell, Washington Post columnist.
    Allegations of political cowardice can seem rich coming from candidates unwilling to acknowledge the obvious truths about things such as higher taxes. | Catherine Rampell
  8. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, former Vice President Joe Biden, center, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., raise their hands to speak during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN/New York Times at Otterbein University, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019, in Westerville, Ohio. (AP Photo/John Minchillo) JOHN MINCHILLO  |  AP
    Here’s some interesting commentary from the opposite poles of the political spectrum.
  9. Yesterday• Opinion
    Letters to the Editor Graphic TARA MCCARTY  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Saturday’s letters to the editor
  10. Boats docked at Central Marine in Stuart are surrounded by blue green algae in June 2016. [The Palm Beach Post]
    The Legislature should step up and stop pollution at its source, write Howard Simon and John Cassani.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement