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Court rejects governor's move to dismiss public records suit

Iowa's high court ruled it won't dismiss a lawsuit against Gov. Kim Reynolds to require her office to respond to public record requests.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds.
Posted at 5:31 PM, Apr 14, 2023

The Iowa Supreme Court on Friday refused to dismiss a lawsuit against Gov. Kim Reynolds that seeks to require her office to respond to public record requests.

The court in a unanimous decision rejected Reynolds' argument that her office wasn't obligated to respond in a timely manner to record requests and that she could avoid the state's open records law by simply ignoring the requests. The Supreme Court ordered that the case be returned to the district court where it would be decided on its merits.

"The governor's office wanted a rule that it and its agencies can ignore public records requests without any consequences," said Thomas Story, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, which represented three media organizations. "Instead, the Iowa Supreme Court has ruled that nobody is above the law."

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

"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," Reynolds said in a statement.

The case stems from a 2021 lawsuit filed by the three media organizations and their reporters who claimed the governor had violated Iowa's open records law by ignoring requests for government records. The reporters had emailed the governor's office with eight different open-record requests between April 2020 and April 2021 and renewed each request at least once, but didn't receive any response until filing a lawsuit in December 2021.

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

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

State lawyers asked a district court judge to dismiss the case, noting the governor's office had ultimately responded to the requests and released public records. After the judge denied the request, the governor appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court.

In seeking to dismiss the lawsuit, state lawyers argued the complaint was moot because the governor's office had released the redacted records. The media organization argued the governor's office's lack of any response to record requests until after a lawsuit was filed represented a violation of the open records law, but state lawyers claimed the governor wasn't obligated to respond within a specified time period and that it would be inappropriate for the Supreme Court to issue requirements for the Executive Branch.

The state also argued that by not responding to open records requests, the governor's office wasn't actually refusing to respond to those requests.

In rejecting that argument, the court's decision included several dictionary definitions of the word, "refuse."

"We conclude that a defendant may "refuse" either by (1) stating that it won't produce records, or (2) showing that it won't produce records," the decision said. "And we believe that this second kind of refusal — an implied or "silent" refusal — can be shown through an unreasonable delay in producing records."

Although the media organizations still must try their case in district court, Story said the Iowa Supreme Court's ruling set an important precedent for open records regulations.

"They not only reaffirmed prior precedent but the court provided additional guidance moving forward as to how state agencies must comply with these record requests, and that guidance is very favorable to making open records requests and advances the cause of transparency in government," Story said.

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

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