The Nevada Supreme Court on Wednesday heard oral arguments in a high-profile public records case that could determine whether the state is required to disclose the retirement benefits of state employees.
The 30-minute hearing was the final step before the high court issues a decision, expected in no sooner than two months
The Nevada Policy Research Institute in 2015 filed a public records request for retiree names, salaries, dates of retirement, years of service and cost-of-living increases. The group’s transparency director, Robert Fellner, argues the public is entitled to see information related to the benefits of an estimated 57,000 members of the Public Employees’ Retirement System of Nevada who receive taxpayer-funded checks.
Fellner said Wednesday that the court seemed receptive to the institute’s arguments.
“The justices seemed to recognize that not providing the retirees’ names undermines the spirit of the law,” Fellner said. “… The justices were skeptical of the fact that PERS changed the reports to no longer have names after they were ordered to release names years ago.”
But the state retirement system’s attorney, Chris Nielsen, said the agency has followed the law and turned over all requested documents. Nielsen also said the agency is responsible for safeguarding retirees’ personal information and has to weigh those concerns against the public’s right to know.
“The privacy rights of PERS’ retirees, especially given their ages, outweighs the rights of full transparency given the increasing amount of identify theft and cybercrimes being committed today,” Nielsen said after Wednesday’s hearing.
Both sides answered numerous questions from the justices before concluding a lawsuit that’s dragged on in lower courts for several years. Nielsen said the public records law in question is “murky” and his agency hopes the Supreme Court decision clarifies what is confidential and what is not.
This is the second lawsuit related to retirees’ benefit information. In 2011, the Reno Gazette-Journal sued for that information and the Nevada Supreme Court in 2013 ordered the agency to disclose the information. But when NPRI requested it for fiscal year 2014, Fellner said, it received numbers with no retiree names.
According to court papers, the agency used Social Security numbers to identify retirees and refused to release that information. It also said the data was kept in the agency’s confidential computer database.