Georgia Supreme Court denies appeal of group seeking records from Legislature



The Georgia Supreme Court has denied an appeal to a ruling that backed up the General Assembly's desire to keep its records from the public.

The Court of Appeals last year decided for the state, essentially saying that documents held by the General Assembly and its offices are not subject to the Open Records Act, which cities, counties and most state agencies are legally bound to follow.

The group contesting the exemption in hopes of making the Legislature and its offices more transparent appealed the ruling to the Georgia Supreme Court.

“It is troubling that the Georgia Supreme Court will not consider whether the state Legislature is allowed to keep secrets about how it governs,” said Dana Berliner, senior vice president and litigation director for the Institute for Justice, an Arlington, Va.-based libertarian public-interest law group.

“Open access to public records is vital in any free society,” Berliner said.

The legal fight came after state officials denied records to the Institute for Justice. The institute was looking into the General Assembly's 2012 decision to regulate the practice of music therapy.

Among other things, the group produces reports on how lobbyists for professions often persuade state legislatures to pass licensing and regulation laws to limit competition.

However, once the group sought records on how the law was created, it ran into a roadblock reporters and plenty of Georgia residents have long known about. The General Assembly -- which receives about $45 million in taxpayer funding a year and has the ability to regulate the health, taxes and professions of Georgians -- and its offices don't have to follow state transparency laws.

A Fulton County judge came to that same conclusion in 2017, throwing out the institute's lawsuit, citing a 44-year-old court ruling in saying that sunshine laws don't apply to the General Assembly, its committees and its offices, such as the legislative counsel or budget offices. The group appealed the judge's decision to the Court of Appeals, which ruled against it.

“We are disappointed that the Supreme Court of Georgia has declined to review this issue of great public importance,” said Alex Harris, a lawyer who represented the group in the lawsuit. “As a result of this decision, Georgians cannot use the Open Records Act to learn basic information about how their elected representatives do their jobs.”

The issue has come up frequently in the past, including in 2018, when the General Assembly's counsel told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the Legislature didn't have to release any information on sexual harassment complaints, settlements or how cases were handled involving lawmakers or their staffs.

The governor's office and state agencies have typically complied with such records requests.

House and Senate leaders can release information if they want to, and they often do. For instance, journalists asking to look at reports on how lawmakers spend their expense allowances generally have to file an Open Records Act request to see the documents, but those reports have been made available.

The House and sometimes the Senate put out meeting agendas in advance, and both chambers post their state budget plans on the General Assembly website after they have been approved by their Appropriations committees.

But as the AJC has detailed in the past, the General Assembly has also not been shy about exempting itself from laws or the outcomes of what it does.

Lawmakers in recent years pushed to allow Georgians with licenses to carry guns to take them most anywhere in the state. However, they can’t at the Statehouse -- which has metal detectors, limited entry points and armed guards.

In 2015, then-Gov. Nathan Deal and legislative leaders said the state shouldn't have to provide health insurance to part-time school bus drivers and cafeteria workers. But part-time lawmakers are eligible for the State Health Benefit Plan and stay on it after they quit or are defeated, even if they move on to high-paying jobs lobbying former colleagues.

Lawmakers in the insurance industry and legal profession are exempt from mandatory continuing education. And state law has, for more than 200 years, prohibited lawmakers from being arrested during sessions of the General Assembly or while in its committees, or while lawmakers are traveling to either one.

On the open records exemption, lawmakers have said they don't want correspondence made public that contains sensitive information from constituents. But that also allows lawmakers to shield the frequent contact they have with lobbyists or other special interests seeking legislation or state funding.