The STATE Supreme Court stepped away from the public's right to know when it withdrew a section of court amendments that expanded the state definition of open records. The court had ruled in January that records are open to the public except in limited circumstances.
The guidelines, the first for judges across the state, would have kept records from being removed from court files, court orders, and opinions. Settlement agreements would also have become public record. At the time of the adoption, Chief Justice Frank Drowota said the rule was designed to promote openness in cases involving the administration and operation of government. Had the guidelines been accepted, records would have been deemed closed only if they posed an adverse effect on public health, public safety, or the operation of government. The guidelines had to be accepted and voted into law by the state legislature.
Under Pressure: Before that body had a chance to vote, court spokesperson Sue Allison said the guidelines were withdrawn for further review after justices became aware of legislators' opposition to some aspects of the guidelines.
While Allison provided no additional information regarding the disputed issues, public information advocate Frank Gibson said the issues involved the media and insurance companies. "The [Tennessee] Bar Association's principal complaint was that the rule would allow reporters to get information from records not filed in court. There was also opposition from insurance companies that felt that having this information opened would discourage people from settling lawsuits," he said.
Gibson heads the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, a nonprofit educational and research group. "In the ocean, [the open-records guideline] is just one ripple," he said. "But the trend had been in the past to close, close, close, and now we have the opportunity to take something usually closed and open it. The significance of it is that it reverses the trend."
Open Sesame: There are currently more than 230 public-record exceptions in Tennessee, including juvenile court and student records. "I think that each [exception] should be reviewed to see if they should be confidential because some were put in for very narrow reasons," said Gibson. For example, a legislator proposed to close 911 tapes to the public after an acquaintance was embarrassed by tapes of domestic abuse against his wife.
"The public needs to understand that the Supreme Court was trying to do the right thing with the new guidelines," said Gibson. "They were not talking about special interests for the media but about benefits to the public. The decision would have been beneficial to them."