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Appeals Court: Georgia legislature exempt from records law

July 8, 2019

ATLANTA (AP) — A state appeals court has sided with the Georgia legislature and affirmed lawmakers’ ability to shield their records from the public.

A Georgia Court of Appeals panel decided for the state on a 2-1 vote, essentially saying records held by the legislature are not subject to the state’s Open Records Act, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports.

The legal battle arose when a libertarian public-interest group — the Arlington, Virginia, based Institute for Justice — was denied records while researching how a 2012 law regulating the practice of music therapy was created.

The group filed a lawsuit over the denial, which was thrown out by a Fulton County judge in 2017. The judge cited a 44-year-old court ruling that the state’s open records law didn’t apply to Georgia’s legislature and its offices. The group then appealed to the Court of Appeals.

Two out of the three judges on the Court of Appeals panel agreed with the Fulton County judge’s ruling dismissing the case.

“If the General Assembly had wanted to include itself in the set of departments, agencies, or offices subject to the Act, it could have done so expressly,” Appeals Court Judge Stephen S. Goss wrote, according to the newspaper.

But Chief Judge Christopher J. McFadden disagreed, writing in his dissent that the open records law applied to “every state office,” which should include the legislature.

The Institute for Justice says it will appeal the case to the Georgia Supreme Court.

“We are obviously disappointed by the decision of the Court of Appeals. Open access to public records is vital in any free society,” said Dana Berliner, the group’s senior vice president and litigation director.

Lawmakers have said the exemption protects sensitive correspondence with constituents from being made public. But it also allows them to shield contact with lobbyists and other special interest groups.

In 2018, amid the growing #Metoo movement, the Georgia legislature’s counsel asserted that the legislature didn’t have to release information about sexual harassment complaints or settlements.

The Georgia General Assembly receives about $45 million in taxpayer funding per year.

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Information from: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, http://www.ajc.com

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