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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The “Sovereignty of the People” Prevails

by Gary Beaver

On June 17, 2010, in State Employees Ass’n of NC, Inc., v. NC Dep’t of State Treasurer, the N.C. Supreme Court reversed the decision of the NC Court of Appeals affirming a trial court’s dismissal of a complaint seeking public records under the Public Records Act, NCGS §§ 132-1 to 132-10. The plaintiff sought records regarding the investment decisions and performance of the Retirement Systems Division of the Department of State Treasurer. Plaintiff began investigating after reading a February 2007 article in Forbes magazine about “pay-to-play” issues involving state retirement pension funds. The defendant had produced hundreds of pages of documents in several installments over the course of a year but plaintiff believed that defendant had not produced all it had.

The lower court had dismissed under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim. The Supreme Court held that the allegations were based on reasonable inferences drawn by plaintiff from the documents that were produced. For example, one produced email referred to another email not produced. The Court rejected defendant’s contention that “possession” of the sought information is a necessary element of a Public Records Act lawsuit. The Court noted that NCGS § 132-9(a) provides the cause of action and it makes no mention of a possession element. The defendant can raise that as a substantive defense but it cannot act as the final authority in deciding possession or custody of the requested public records. To allow it to do so would undermine the strong public policy favoring release of public records to increase transparency in government.

This is a sound and needed decision. Given what we have seen in recent years from Jim Black and other “public servants” while our media sat idly by not, or belatedly, investigating or reporting misfeasance and malfeasance by elected and appointed officials, the Public Records Act is the public’s last, best hope at ferreting out and preventing corruption in government.

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