Favoring disclosure: Court strengthens state public records law

There is one, overriding reason why Nevada has such a clear, strong public records law: A democracy can’t survive without transparency. The public won’t have confidence in government institutions or elected officials if the records that document the public’s business aren’t open to inspection. Secrecy begets tyranny.

The Nevada Supreme Court on Thursday bolstered Nevada’s public records law and rejected the idea that any state office can lock down documents without explanation. In a 7-0 decision, justices overturned a District Court ruling that allowed former Gov. Jim Gibbons to keep secret nearly 100 emails requested by the Reno Gazette-Journal.

The case goes back to Carson City District Judge James Todd Russell’s courtroom, where the state must provide the newspaper with a log that lists a “general factual description” and a “specific explanation for nondisclosure” for each email. Judge Russell will have to review those logs before determining which emails will now be made public.

When the Gazette-Journal had requested the emails in 2008, Gov. Gibbons simply contended they were privileged or were not public records. But Nevada’s public records law places “an unmistakable emphasis on disclosure,” Chief Justice Nancy Saitta wrote in the decision, and requires a specific “notice and citation to legal authority that justifies nondisclosure.”

The Gazette-Journal had asked for messages that Gov. Gibbons sent from a state email account to 10 people, including two women his former wife claimed he had affairs with. Gov. Gibbons’ rejection of the request — and Judge Russell’s decision to release just six of the 104 messages after the newspaper sued — prevented the Gazette-Journal from assessing whether any could be considered legitimately confidential.

“It’s a very good ruling because it recognizes the need for a log, or index, of the emails and the reasons they were withheld,” said Nevada Press Association Executive Director Barry Smith.

If elected officials and government workers choose to use their taxpayer-provided email accounts for personal business, the existence of those messages can’t be denied when the press or the public asks for them. At the very least, a log must be produced. That, by itself, ensures some transparency and accountability.

“Blanket denials of access are a thing of the past,” said Scott Glogovac, a lawyer representing the Gazette-Journal.

The high court got this one exactly right — for all the right reasons.

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