Last week a state district court judge in Baton Rouge refused to dismiss a lawsuit filed against Attorney General Jeff Landry over Landry’s foot-dragging in responding to a public records request.
For some asinine reason, Landry argued Louisiana’s public records law, which often is regarded as the finest public records law in the nation thanks to the 1974 state Constitution, was only applicable for Louisiana citizens. In other words, someone who resides in another state — such as Indiana — does not possess the same rights as a Louisiana citizen as far as the state’s public records law is concerned. At least that’s what Landry argued.
Nineteenth Judicial District Court Judge William Morvant, a conservative, didn’t buy it. Instead, Morvant ruled Landry must pay the legal fees incurred by a Indianapolis woman who had submitted two public records requests to Landry’s office in 2016. It was not until Scarlett Martin, a researcher, sued Landry in 2017 that Landry finally started complying with her requests.
Morvant stopped short of penalizing Landry any further. Martin’s attorney, Chris Whittington, had asked the judge to fine Landry $100 per day for each day Landry failed to comply with Martin’s public records requests. She paid roughly $250 for copies of the records she sought but claimed she didn’t receive the records for 175 days after she originally requested them.
Under state law, public bodies, including public officials, are allowed 72 hours — generally speaking — to comply with a public records request. There are exceptions such as when an individual or company requests an exorbitant number of records, which may take days to locate in order to make them available to the requestor. For the record, Martin’s requests were voluminous, but she should have never been left in the lurch for nearly six months.
It’s important to note a public body — under state law — can determine the amount of money it wishes to charge for copies of public records. Yet, a public body also may insist on collecting a payment for the time a public body must assign its employees to gather the records in question in order to comply with a public records request. The public records law says nothing about public bodies having the legal right to be compensated for the time public bodies spend in collecting public records, except after hours.
The latter represents the latest scam public bodies, including public officials, have employed to discourage the general public, including the press, from requesting public records.
Now that I’ve gotten the mish-mash out of the way, let’s get to the point.
Landry’s office suggested that Martin’s public records requests were politically motivated. After all, her attorney is a former state Democrat Party official.
It is irrelevant whether Martin is a liberal or a conservative or a star gazer. It also is entirely irrelevant whether her attorney, Whittington, is a liberal who once worked at the state Democrat Party.
The bottom line is the records Martin requested were public records. That means she and you and me have a right to review them or have copies made of them so we can take them home to read whenever we damn well feel like reading them. Period.
Of all people, conservatives — such as Jeff Landry and newspaper columnist Jeff Sadow — should never dismiss Louisiana’s public records law as archaic or burdensome or a waste of time. Instead, conservatives should defend the law until their last, dying breath.
Louisiana’s public records law represents one of the most powerful tools the general public has at its disposal to restrain state and local governments and public officials from doing whatever they care to do whenever they care to do it. Then again, too many so-called conservatives in Louisiana don’t want the general public to learn they’re just as corrupt and just as rotten as their so-called liberal counterparts.