November 6, 2020 - 9:00 pm
Public records come to those who wait — and have a good lawyer.
At the end of October, District Court Judge Jim Crockett ruled that Clark County must turn over child autopsy reports requested by the Review-Journal. It was a victory for transparency and open government. That records request was made in 2017.
For years, the Review-Journal has been digging into the circumstances around child deaths to evaluate the performance of Clark County Child Protective Services. Autopsy records can reveal vital information, including whether a child sustained prior injuries. This provides facts that are relevant to determine whether CPS officials and social workers acted appropriately and made proper determinations regarding the safety of children in the system.
The importance of this work should be obvious. Child abuse is a horrific evil inflicted on the vulnerable and voiceless. An investigation into CPS’ work provides an outside perspective on what they agency is doing well and what it needs to improve.
Yet, for three years, Clark County officials have fought to suppress these documents. This forced the Review-Journal to sue. The Nevada Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that autopsies are public records. The court, however, did allow the coroner to redact some information, such as medical history. Predictably, the coroner’s office attempted to exploit that loophole.
But in his ruling, Judge Crockett ordered the county to turn over up to 700 autopsies without redactions. The documents are due by the end of this month. He also had some choice words for the coroner’s cavalier attitude.
“The problem I see with the coroner’s almost glib redactions is that it is as if the coroner’s office doesn’t accept that they are a public servant,” Judge Crockett said during the hearing. “It’s upsetting that this type of heel-dragging has been going on in such a public records case.”
It is indeed outrageous. Unfortunately, it happens all too often. It might even happen again in this case. Clark County could decide to appeal. Even though the government is virtually certain to lose, it would drag the process out even longer at taxpayer expense. But when you can spend someone else’s money to avoid the law and protect your personal fiefdom, many government officials spare no quarter. The county has already spent at least $80,000 fighting to keep these records from the public. That number could increase, as the judge also ruled that the Review-Journal may request attorneys fees and costs.
Unfortunately, most public records requesters don’t have the time and treasure to fight these drawn-out battles. Many times government bureaucrats can squash a legitimate request simply by stalling and withholding the records.
In 2019, lawmakers increased penalties for agencies that willfully disregard Nevada’s public records law. This case highlights the importance of that legislation — and why still more teeth may be warranted.