Illinois Supreme Court Ruling Protects the Integrity of the State’s Freedom of Information Act

Ruling Allows Institute for Justice to Advance Work to Help African Hair Braiders

Springfield, Ill.—This morning, the Illinois Supreme Court issued a ruling strengthening the protections of the State’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The ruling makes it more difficult for government officials to enact laws allowing them to deny public record requests that they do not like. The ruling will also help the Institute for Justice’s (IJ) mission to make it easier for African hair braiders to find and keep employment.

“The Court’s opinion is a victory for everyone in Illinois who supports government transparency,” said Dana Berliner, IJ’s senior vice president and litigation director. “It will also help our organization continue to fight for the rights of African braiders to earn an honest living, free from unreasonable government regulation.”

The lawsuit resulted from a state agency’s five-year quest to prevent the disclosure of  documents about the agency’s regulation of African braiders. IJ requested the documents from the Illinois Department of Financial & Professional Regulation in 2013 as part of its work to eliminate unfair and burdensome regulations on hair braiders and a number of other low and middle-income occupations. The Institute specifically requested any complaints the agency had about hair braiders as part of its research study to determine whether there is a public safety justification for requiring hair braiders to undergo thousands of hour of classes before they can receive a license to work.

Although 9 other states and the District of Columbia disclosed the same documents to the Institute, the Illinois agency refused. The agency’s continued refusals forced the Institute to bring an administrative appeal of the agency’s denial, and then retain a law firm to bring a lawsuit against the agency.

In response to the lawsuit, the agency lobbied legislatures to pass a law that would allow it to keep the requested documents confidential.  After the law passed, the agency then argued that the law applied retroactively to bar the Institute’s request.

The Illinois Supreme Court disagreed. The Court ruled that the legislature cannot pass laws changing the rules for disclosure of documents retroactively, unless the new laws meet several strict requirements, which this law did not.  This ruling advances the public policy of FOIA to allow “access by all persons to public records” in order to promotes the “transparency and accountability of public bodies at all levels of governments.”

Jeffery Lula of Kirkland & Ellis, who represented IJ in the lawsuit, added “We are very pleased that the Illinois Supreme Court took this opportunity to clarify the law on this issue.  This ruling strengthens transparency and accountability in Illinois.”

Despite Illinois’ refusal to provide information, in July 2016 IJ released Barriers to Braiding, a report on how job-killing licensing laws tangle natural hair care in needless red tape. Now, with the State Supreme Court’s ruling, IJ will be finally be able to supplement the report with information from Illinois.

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