May 1, 2006
APPLICATION OF THE FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT TO JUDICIAL RECORDS
By: Sandra Norman-Eady, Chief Attorney
You asked for a summary of Clerk of the Superior Court, Geographical Area Number Seven v. Freedom of Information Commission (SC 17273).
In an en banc decision written by Chief Justice Sullivan, the Connecticut Supreme Court decided against the Freedom of Information Commission in a case regarding access to Judicial Branch records. Based on its construction of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the Court, in the 4-3 decision, held that records related to branch's adjudicatory functions are categorically exempt from disclosure. It also held that the administrative records subject to disclosure under the act are those relating to the branch's budget, personnel, facilities, and physical operations of the courts. Justices Palmer, Zarella, and Lavery joined Chief Justice Sullivan in the majority opinion. Justice Palmer also wrote a separate concurring opinion setting out the public's First Amendment right to review and copy court records.
Justice Norcott wrote a dissenting opinion, which Justices Borden, and Katz joined. Justice Norcott argued that the case should have been remanded to the trial court for a hearing on issues related to court's ability to comply with the FOIA request without interfering with the orderly conduct of the court's essential functions.
CLERK OF THE SUPERIOR COURT, GEOGRAPHICAL AREA NUMBER SEVEN v. FREEDOM OF INFORMATION COMMISSION
Facts and Procedural History
Attorney Russell Collins was denied permission to review the court's pending book (records of pending cases) and daybooks (list of cases filed on the court docket by date) on the ground that the records did not involve an “administrative function” and thus were not subject to FOIA. The attorney's subsequent request for nonexempt information in the Judicial Branch's computer storage system related to criminal defendants was denied on the same ground.
The attorney filed a complaint with the Freedom of Information Commission, which found that the pending book and daybooks were not disclosable because of the difficulty of redacting confidential information, but that the computer system is covered under FOIA and ordered its disclosure (FOIC decision attached).
The plaintiff successfully appealed the commission's decision. The trial court found that the commission's order did not allow the Judicial Branch to “screen what records deal with a judicial function and which deal with administrative functions.” Thus, the court held that the commission had extended its reach beyond that contemplated by the law.
The defendant appealed to the Appellate Court, which transferred the appeal to the state Supreme Court. The case was argued before a panel of five justices. Some time later, the Court ordered that the case be considered en banc and Justice Palmer and Chief Judge Lavery of the Appellate Court were added to the panel.
Issue on Appeal
Whether records created and retained by the plaintiff in its combined criminal and motor vehicle computer storage system are related to the Judicial Branch's administrative functions and thus subject to disclosure under FOIA.
Rules of Law
FOIA requires that records a public agency maintains be disclosed to the public unless a federal law or another state law requires that they be treated confidentially (CGS § 1-210). FOIA defines “public record” as any recorded data or information relating to the conduct of the public's business prepared, owned, used, received, or retained by a public agency. It defines “public agency” to include most agencies of the state and its political subdivision. However, it applies to Judicial Branch agencies only with respect to their administrative functions (CGS § 1-200). FOIA does not define “administrative function.”
The Court held that (1) the Judicial Branch's administrative functions consist of activities relating to its budget, personnel, facilities, and physical operations of the courts and (2) records created in the course of carrying out the courts' adjudicatory function are categorically exempt from FOIA. Since information in the plaintiff's computer system did not relate to the activities under (1), they did not constitute public records subject to disclosure under FOIA.
Citing its decision in Rules Committee of the Superior Court v. Freedom of Information Commission, 192 Conn. 234 (1984), the Court articulated a twofold restriction on FOIA's application to Judicial Branch records. First, the legislature intended for FOIA to apply to records prepared by a subdivision of the Judicial Branch only in the course of carrying out an administrative function. Second, the legislature intended “administrative function” to be construed narrowly. In Rules Committee, the Court looked at the common usage of the term “administrative” and the legislative history of FOIA. It found that the term commonly refers to a range of activities extending from day-to-day management to the conduct of official business and that the legislative history supported a restrictive meaning of “administrative.” Thus, it concluded that the Superior Court's rules committee does not perform an administrative function and therefore is not subject to FOIA's open meeting requirement.
The Court cited five reasons for rejecting the commission's argument that dicta in Rules Committee,supra, established that all judicial records relating to the tracking, scheduling, and docketing of court cases are administrative functions subject to disclosure under FOIA. Specifically, it stated that:
1. the decision in Rules Committee was internally inconsistent;
2. it now realizes that the Rules Committee's definition of “administrative function” is flawed;
3. Rules Committee was decided, in part, based on legislative history made after FOIA was enacted; thus, the Court relied on legislative testimony that should not have provided persuasive guidance on the act's scope;
4. the language in FOIA indicates the legislature's intent to distinguish adjudicatory and administrative records, with only the latter being covered by the act; and
5. a genealogy of the act and other statutes regarding disclosure of public records support the conclusion that recordkeeping is not an inherently administrative function. (Prior to FOIA's passage, the law required the disclosure of all public records.)
The commission also cited Connecticut Bar Examining Committee v. Freedom of Information Commission, 209 Conn. 204 (1988), in support of its argument that judicial tracking, scheduling, and docketing of court cases are administrative functions. In that case, the Court held that the plaintiff did not have to disclose certain records relating to the July 1983 bar examination because its principal function of determining whether an applicant is qualified for admission to the bar is adjudicative rather than administrative.
The Court concluded that Bar Examining Committee did not support the commission's argument. “To the extent that Connecticut Bar Examining Committee held that [FOIA] applies to judicial functions that are both administrative and adjudicative, the case relied exclusively on our dicta in Rules Committee of the Superior Court in support of that proposition and is subject to criticism for the same reasons.”
The Court next turned its attention to a line of New York cases to further explore the scope of the term “administrative.” New York's freedom of information law specifically exempts state courts, including municipal and district courts, from its application. In the cases the Supreme Court cited, New York courts construed the exemption to apply only to courts' adjudicatory functions and not to staffing and physical operations. The New York courts reasoned that the legislature excluded courts from the law's application out of respect for the independence of the judiciary as a separate co-equal branch of government with the power to control its own records. (see Quirk v. Evans, 116 Misc. 2d 554 (1982); Harvey v. Hynes, 174 Misc. 2d 174 (1997); and Daily Publishing Co. v. Office of Court Administration, 186 Misc. 2d 424 (2000)).
According to the Court, these cases provided persuasive guidance that “our legislature intended to codify the principle that courts, not executive agencies, should have control over court records.”
Lastly, the Court stated that its determination did not mean that Attorney Collins did not have a right, guaranteed by the First Amendment, to the information he requested. It went on to state that FOIA goes far beyond the codification of this First Amendment right by (1) imposing short deadlines within which to consider requests, (2) providing for appeals to the Freedom of Information Commission, and (3) imposing civil fines on violators of the act.
In his concurring opinion, Justice Palmer agreed with the majority's conclusion but emphasized that Attorney Collins has a presumptive right, guaranteed by the First Amendment, to inspect and copy court records (Rosado v. Bridgeport Roman Catholic Diocesan Corp., 276 Conn. 168 (2005); Hartford Courant Co. v. Pellegrino, 380 F.3d 83 (2nd Cir. 2004)).
Palmer reasoned that the legislature limited FOIA's applicability to the administrative functions of the Judicial Branch because it was “undoubtedly aware of the fact that all documents relating to the adjudicatory functions of the court…were presumptively available for inspection and copying by the public.”
Justice Norcott penned the dissenting opinion. He opined that the majority's “miscomprehension of our case law, misplaced reliance on New York law, and failure to credit properly the legislative history of the act” led to its flawed conclusion that “administrative functions” consist of activities relating to its budget, personnel, facilities, and physical operations of the courts.
According to Norcott, Rules Committee, supra, clearly delineates that “administrative function” refers to matters related to the internal institutional machinery of the court system. Later, In Bar Examining Committee, supra, the Court further elaborated on the matters that constitute administrative functions. The reasoning in these cases demonstrates that “a record may be administrative, and, therefore, subject to the act, even if it emerges from the process of deciding cases.”
“I would, therefore, conclude that the computer system information in the present case pertains merely to the ''internal institutional machinery'' by which the judicial branch schedules and tracks pending criminal cases, and is not information affecting the decisional process in those cases, which is exempt from the act.”
Norcott found the majority's reliance on New York cases misplaced given the distinct organizational structure of New York's court system and the fact that New York's freedom of information law, unlike FOIA, does not apply to courts.
Lastly, Norcott disagreed with the way the majority opinion dealt with legislative history. Norcott argues that testimony provided to the Judiciary Committee two years after FOIA's enactment was persuasive of the legislature's intent to apply the act to Judicial Branch records because the testimony was given at the time the act's application was extended to cover courts' administrative functions.
“I would, therefore, reverse the judgment of the trial court and remand the case for a hearing to determine whether: (1) compliance with the commission's order would impede the adjudicative process; and (2) the Judicial Branch reasonably could, after establishing new procedures, make available the information sought.”