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Lawsuit over Gov. Reynolds’ public records lands in Iowa Supreme Court

The Iowa Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday in a lawsuit brought by a former public health department employee against the governor and other state officials.
Madeleine C King
The Iowa Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday in a lawsuit about how quickly the governor's office must comply with public records requests.

An attorney for Gov. Kim Reynolds is asking the Iowa Supreme Court to throw out a case accusing her office of ignoring open records requests, including requests for documents related to the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The case looks to establish a standard to determine whether the governor has complied with the state’s open records law.

Journalists with the websites Bleeding Heartland and the Iowa Capital Dispatch, along with the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, sued in December 2021 after multiple records requests to the governor’s office went unfilled. In some cases the request had been unresolved for more than 18 months.

State attorneys asked to have the case dismissed, but a district court judge denied their motion. That decision was appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Solicitor General Eric Wessan, representing the state, said in oral arguments Wednesday that the governor’s office never directly refused to fill the requests.

Justice David May asked how not responding to a request is different than refusing. Wessan argued that the law requires a direct statement, not inaction, and if the process takes too long the person requesting public documents can sue to set a deadline.

Chief Justice Susan Christensen asked Wessan how that might play out among other public agencies if the Supreme Court accepts his argument.

“So then everyone else, once they learn about this case if that’s the path that’s taken, all they have to do is just give a cold shoulder and force a lawsuit?” she asked.

Wessan responded that the person seeking public records may believe their request should take precedence, but a government office has to weigh the work it would take to fill that request against other responsibilities.

“Sometimes a governmental entity is going to have to have different priorities and will prioritize differently,” Wessan said.

When the requests from Bleeding Heartland and Iowa Capital Dispatch came to the governor, Wessan said, managing the pandemic took priority. There is no deadline in Iowa’s open records law that pertains to the governor, he said, and for the courts to set one would violate the separation of powers.

“What that asks the court to do is to second guess the governor’s determination of what her and her staff’s prioritization of time is,” Wessan said.

Thomas Story, an attorney from the ACLU of Iowa, argued that if there is no deadline the governor can effectively put off providing the records indefinitely.

“Public records are the public’s records. They are holding them for us,” Story said. “This is the right to know. It’s a right that’s crucial to democracy for a public that’s best served by a transparent and responsive government.”

Chief Justice Susan Christensen asked whether the governor’s office ever responded to the reporters that there was trouble gathering the records, or that it would take a long time to fill a request because it was too broad.

Story said there was no response other than to confirm the requests had been received.

“Never did the governor’s office reach out and say, ‘Look, we’re really busy. We’ve got a pandemic going on. Give us more time,’” Story said. “None of that ever happened. They were simply ignored. And they were going to be ignored, it is clear, unless and until they filed suit. That’s why the production happened within 18 days after suit.”

Even though some records were turned over 18 days after the lawsuit was filed, Story said the reporters want the case to continue in district court in order to push for documents that were withheld or heavily redacted.

The Supreme Court will make a ruling in the case later on in the year.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa