Iowa Supreme Court says open records lawsuit against Governor Reynolds should proceed

by Jared Strong, Iowa Capital Dispatch
April 14, 2023

A lawsuit by three journalists who allege Gov. Kim Reynolds violated the state’s Open Records Law should continue in district court to determine whether her responses to their requests were timely, the Iowa Supreme Court decided Friday.

The suit was filed in late 2021 by the journalists of three organizations — including Iowa Capital Dispatch — after the governor’s office had failed to respond for up to 18 months to their records requests. The office provided the records less than three weeks after the lawsuit was filed.

“The Iowa Supreme Court unanimously determined that Gov. Kim Reynolds cannot violate Iowa’s Open Records Law by failing to respond to journalists’ public information requests,” said Thomas Story, an attorney for the ACLU of Iowa, which filed the suit on behalf of Iowa Capital Dispatch and the other plaintiffs

Attorneys for the governor argued that the case is now moot because the requests have been fulfilled and that the governor is not subject to scrutiny about the timeliness of her responses to public records requests.

A district court judge denied a request to dismiss the case, and the governor appealed. Friday’s Supreme Court opinion concluded that appeal. 

There is no specific deadline imposed by Iowa law for public officials to fulfill such requests, but the Supreme Court sided with a records requester in 2013 and found that the city of Dyersville violated the law when it didn’t provide written and video records for 2 1/2 months. Those records were also provided after the requester filed suit.

The governor had further claimed that an attempt by the judicial branch to evaluate the governor’s process for providing public records would be an unconstitutional violation of the separation of powers.

The justices, in a unanimous decision on Friday, rejected that notion, and said that the case hinges on three questions: Is the governor subject to the Open Records Law? Were the requests for government records? And did the governor refuse to make the records available?

“It is clear that the plaintiffs have sought government records from defendants who are subject to the requirements of (the Open Records Law), the only question is whether the defendants ‘refused to make those government records available,’” wrote Justice David May, who delivered the opinion. “The answer should depend on how the defendants responded. It should depend on the defendants’ outward behavior toward the requesting plaintiffs. It should not depend on the defendants’ thinking. It should not depend on the defendants’ internal conversations. It should not depend on any of the inner workings of the Governor’s office.”

Justice Edward Mansfield did not take part in the consideration of the case and the decision.

On the issue of whether the governor’s office refused to provide records, her attorneys argue that there was no explicit denial but merely a delay. The law allows “reasonable” delays.

To determine whether a delay is reasonable or whether it amounts to a refusal, the justices said it might depend upon how a government official communicates with a requester, including acknowledgements of a request, explanations for and updates about the delays, and assurances that the requests will be fulfilled.

The lawsuit — filed by the ACLU of Iowa on behalf of Clark Kauffman, the deputy editor for Iowa Capital Dispatch, Laura Belin, the publisher of Bleeding Heartland, and Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council — alleges that their requests to the governor’s office were met largely with a lack of response.

In a prepared statement after the court’s decision on Friday, Reynolds blamed the COVID-19 pandemic for the delays.

“During that time, there was an unprecedented number of open records requests and many of those went unfulfilled for a period,” she said. “While we disagree that this lawsuit should continue, my office has eliminated the backlog of open records requests and is committed to upholding our responsibility to respond to any new requests in a timely manner.”

The case will now move back to district court, where the suit seeks a declaration that Reynolds violated the law, an order to require future compliance with the law and reimbursement for legal fees.

“It shouldn’t take a lawsuit to gain access to public documents,” said Kathie Obradovich, editor-in-chief of Iowa Capital Dispatch. “It’s important for the media and therefore the people of Iowa to receive this important information in a timely manner, especially during a public health crisis.”

The requests

Iowa law requires an initial response to records requests within 20 days. The requests that spawned the lawsuit were submitted by the three journalists over the span of about 16 months and received varying degrees of communications and fulfillment from the governor’s office, according to court documents.

The responses varied from no acknowledgement to a partial production of records:

— In April 2020, Belin requested videos Reynolds recorded that were distributed to food processing facility employees of her “speaking about the essential work they were doing” in the early weeks of the pandemic, along with other written communications to those employees.

Belin sent two follow-up emails before she received a response seven days after the request from Michael Boal, the governor’s deputy legal counsel, which said: “Our office has received this request. Thank you.”

Belin sent a further 14 follow-up emails over the course of months but did not receive any more responses.

— In July 2020, Belin requested written communications and memos about legislation related to electric transmission lines.

She sent one follow-up email before receiving a response from Boal about 25 days after her initial request that said: “This request has been received. Thank you for your patience.”

Belin sent five more emails but did not receive another response.

— Belin sent three more requests for other records in July 2020 and June 2021 that went unacknowledged by the governor’s office despite repeated follow-ups.

— In April 2021, Kauffman sought information related to a dinner at Terrace Hill hosted by the governor that benefitted a parochial school. He asked for a legal opinion the governor might have sought before hosting the meal that said the arrangement was allowable, along with information about past meals at the governor’s mansion that were auctioned to raise money.

Pat Garrett, a former communications director for the governor, responded 28 days later that he was forwarding the request to the governor’s attorneys, but Kauffman received nothing further.

— In May 2021, Kauffman requested written communications between the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown and the governor’s office. He received three documents about 105 days later.

In the course of his reporting about overpayments to the former leader of the home, Kauffman discovered that the governor’s office had failed to provide at least two documents. Boal said the omissions were a mistake and apologized. Kauffman’s subsequent request for Boal’s communications with the governor’s former chief of staff about the overpayments went unfulfilled.

— In August 2021, Evans requested a variety of records related to the deployment of Iowa State Patrol members to Texas in the preceding months. Evans received a response 10 days later that asked for clarifications about his request — which Evans provided — but the request went unfulfilled.

“The pandemic placed unusual demands on many people, and we understood it might take state officials a little longer to process records requests,” Belin said in a Friday press conference. “But the delays continued for many months, long after Gov. Reynolds had ordered state government staff back to their offices and encouraged Iowans to resume their normal lives.”

The defendants of the lawsuit include Reynolds, Boal, Garrett and Alex Murphy, another former communications director for the office.

Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Iowa Capital Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kathie Obradovich for questions: Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.

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