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Court decision upholds right to timely access to public information

On December 20, 2010, the Court of Appeals issued a decision in Ireland v. Shearin (No. 26, Sept. Term 2010) reversing the judgment of the lower court and adopting the position of the Public Justice Center, which represented the appellant, Mr. Robert Ireland.

The case, which the Court of Appeals took up on its own initiative (sua sponte), involved the question of what constitutes a “denial” of public records under the Maryland Public Information Act. In 2008, Mr. Ireland, formerly an inmate at the Western Correctional Institution, submitted a request for public records to the warden of WCI pursuant to the Maryland Public Information Act (PIA). As the official custodian of WCI records, the warden had a legal duty to either provide Mr. Ireland with the requested materials in a timely fashion or explain any decision to deny the request. Instead, the warden improperly instructed Mr. Ireland to re-direct portions of his request to several different subordinate offices within the prison. Mr. Ireland did so but never got the documents and, accordingly, filed a pro se suit to enforce his rights under the PIA in the Circuit Court for Alleghany County. Apparently believing that the warden’s actions were valid, the circuit court dismissed Mr. Ireland’s complaint on the grounds that the warden had not “denied” his PIA request.

On appeal, the Public Justice Center argued that a records custodian “denies” a PIA request when he or she re-directs the requester to subordinate government officials. Following an evasive response of this sort, the requester is under no obligation to pursue numerous individual officials for individual records that they may or may not possess, and is instead entitled to vindicate his or her PIA rights to swift production of public records by a government custodian such as the warden. Any other approach, the Public Justice Center asserted in its written and oral presentations, would render meaningless the statutory right to prompt access to public information.

The Court of Appeals embraced the PJC’s position without reservation. In its published opinion, the Court reasoned that permitting records custodians to “unduly prolong [an] applicant’s request by continually rerouting [him or her] through each level of bureaucracy” would threaten the “spirit of disclosure” at the core of the statute. Based on the language and purposes of the PIA, the Court concluded that the “burden to collect and assemble the requested records falls squarely on the State rather than on the applicant.” Its decision makes clear that agencies may not respond to requests for public records with delay and diversion, and must instead afford individuals with prompt access to information about the operations of the government.

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