EDITORIAL: District Judge Jim Crockett slaps down Clark County for refusing to release autopsy reports

Back in early November, four Clark County commissioners — Susan Brager, Chris Giunchigliani, Marilyn Kirkpatrick and Lawrence Weekly — voted to spend taxpayer dollars in an attempt to keep those very same taxpayers from viewing public records.

It was an all-too-common example of bureaucratic chutzpah and of the indifference political elites often exhibit toward the critical concept of government accountability.

On Thursday, that misguided decision became potentially even more costly for local taxpayers when District Judge Jim Crockett ordered the county to pay $32,000 to the Review-Journal to cover legal fees the paper incurred fighting the government’s intransigence.

At issue is the public accessibility of autopsy reports. Last April, Clark County Coroner John Fudenberg denied the RJ’s request for three such documents, citing privacy and other concerns. But, in September, Judge Crockett ruled that the reports were public under the state open records law and ordered their release.

That should have been the end of the matter. Nevada law holds that all government records must be open for public perusal unless specifically exempted under statute, which autopsy reports are not. The law recognizes that excessive secrecy represents a danger to good government and that corruption and tyranny thrive absent scrutiny and transparency.

In the case of autopsy reports, they can often be important tools to determine whether those in the criminal justice system did their jobs, particularly in suspicious deaths.

Nevertheless, Mr. Fudenberg in November asked the commissioners to appeal Judge Crockett’s September ruling, and the panel inexplicably voted to 4-2 to thumb their noses at the concept of transparency despite little chance of prevailing. Now Judge Crockett has slapped the county with a $32,000 judgment.

“The county should release the records immediately,” said Keith Moyer, the RJ’s editor-in-chief. “If the county appeals this decision and delays payment or the release of the autopsy records, the expense to the taxpayers will only grow.”

And there’s the rub. Mr. Fudenberg and the commissioners are gambling with somebody else’s money. None of them will bear any expense for this fiasco. And it’s highly possible — given Judge Crockett’s strong message — that the county could face additional fines and fees stemming from the appeal, a further affront to local taxpayers.

If justice were truly served, commissioners would be held financially responsible for supporting this futile, wasteful and unnecessary endeavor. Absent that, Mr. Moyer is right. The county should do the next best thing and drop the appeal, hand over the legal fees and make clear that it recognizes that autopsy reports are public documents under state law.

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