Missouri's Corrections department violated the state's "Sunshine" law when it failed to provide information to some of the people who asked to witness a state execution, Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem ruled on New Year's Eve.
The ACLU of Missouri, which filed the lawsuit in September 2014, issued a news release last week announcing Beetem's decision.
"The Missouri Department of Corrections continues to knowingly violate the law in order to prevent the public from seeing how it carries out executions," Tony Rothert, the ACLU's legal director, explained in the news release. "Every Missourian should be concerned that the Department is taking lives in their name, without transparency or oversight."
Beetem ruled the department "committed a knowing violation of the Sunshine Law (and is) ordered to pay a civil monetary penalty of $500, as well as the reasonable attorney fees and costs Plaintiffs incurred in prosecuting their prevailing claims."
The ACLU has challenged the Corrections department several times on how it prepares for and conducts executions.
This time, it said in its six-page lawsuit, it wanted to "better understand how the (department) Director," George Lombardi, "exercises his discretion to pick execution witnesses," so it "requested public records" from the department.
Missouri's Open Meetings/Open Records, or "Sunshine," law requires governmental agencies to provide requested information "unless otherwise provided by law."
In May 2014, the ACLU asked for "any and all records" in the department's possession "regarding witnesses to executions," including:
• Those the department invited to be a witness during the previous year, and their responses.
• Members of the public or news media who asked to be witnesses, and the department's consideration of, and responses to, those requests.
• Information about those who actually witnessed executions.
Both the initial lawsuit and Beetem's four-page ruling noted the department had provided some of the sought-after documents on three different days in July 2014 - but all those documents contained information that had been redacted.
So, the lawsuit said, those documents weren't responsive to the ACLU's request, the redactions "were not authorized by law," and the department "refused to provide the contact information for the official" who would handle any appeal of the "denial of documents and the redaction of the documents that were produced."
After a hearing, Beetem determined the ACLU actually asked for two types of documents, but it only was entitled to one of the types - the information about the public and media.
"There is no statute which establishes a "right to privacy' with respect to these records," Beetem ruled. "The type of information sought is released by the Department of Revenue Driver's License Bureau on a daily basis and is available on line from Casenet to the general public.
"There is no privacy interest in records of personal information given to a government agency and Corrections may not rely on such a right of privacy to deny access to these records."
But Beetem's ruling also found the department could withhold information about current and former Corrections employees.
Testimony during the hearing "quite eloquently and clearly set forth how seemingly innocuous personal information of Corrections staff could be mis-used to undermine institutional security," Beetem wrote. "Other than name and employer, applications and other documents concerning current members of Corrections' staff may be redacted. ...
"The Court (also) finds that institutional security could be compromised if employees knew that their personal information was not protected after the termination of their employment."
Beetem's ruling won't be final until the judge gets more information from the department and from the ACLU.
The ruling requires the ACLU to "submit their claim for attorney fees and costs within thirty (30) days and indicate whether or not they have been adjusted to reflect the fact that they did not prevail on all claims," then gives the department 15 days to respond.
Beetem set Feb. 26 as the date for final submission of the case.