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Georgia Supreme Court Refuses to Consider Whether State Legislature Should Be Exempt from Public Records Law

Lower court decisions held that the Open Records Act does not apply to the Georgia General Assembly or its offices

Georgia Capital Bulilding

Atlanta, Ga.—The Georgia Supreme Court denied an appeal in a case challenging whether the Georgia General Assembly should be exempt from the public records law. While the Georgia Open Records Act subjects “every state office” to its requirements, the Fifth Division of the Court of Appeals of Georgia ruled last year that “The General Assembly is not subject to a law unless named therein or the intent that it be included [is] clear and unmistakable.” The decision ends a lawsuit filed by the Institute for Justice (IJ) in response to Georgia officials’ refusal to turn over records related to the state’s music-therapy licensing law.

“It is troubling that the Georgia Supreme Court will not consider whether the state legislature is allowed to keep secrets about how it governs,” said IJ Senior Vice President and Litigation Director Dana Berliner. “Open access to public records is vital in any free society. When the Georgia General Assembly passed the Open Records Act, it did not exempt itself even though it could have made that explicit. The court’s decision to take a pass will mean lawmakers can hide their decision making from the people.”

The result in Georgia reflects a troubling trend at the local, state and federal levels, as governments and agencies are stonewalling requests from the very citizens, journalists and activists that keep an eye on them. In this case, the government’s argument—that the General Assembly is not explicitly mentioned in Georgia’s Open Records Act and thus the General Assembly effectively exempted itself from its own law—is particularly concerning. The outcome will limit Georgia citizens’ access to truthful information and insulate government from public scrutiny. This is precisely the scenario that public disclosure laws were designed to prevent.

“We are disappointed that the Supreme Court of Georgia has declined to review this issue of great public importance,” said Alex Harris of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, which represented IJ in the suit. “As a result of this decision, Georgians cannot use the Open Records Act to learn basic information about how their elected representatives do their jobs.”

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