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Supreme Court takes up case on death records

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An attorney for an Evansville newspaper on Thursday told the Indiana Supreme Court that the public should be able to find out a person’s cause of death.

But the Vanderburgh County Health Department argued that state law says otherwise.

The Indiana Supreme Court heard oral arguments on a lawsuit the Evansville Courier & Press and Pike County resident Rita Ward filed against the county health department. The court is considering whether the cause of death listed on death certificates is a public record.

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller filed an amicus brief – also known as a friend-of-the-court brief – supporting the newspaper’s argument, even though the state is not a party in the case.

“In keeping with the principles of transparency and accountability, we ask merely for a return to what had been the longstanding practice of making the cause of death in death certificates promptly available to the public who has the right to that information,” Zoeller said in a statement.

At issue is the difference between the death certificate and the online death registry, which are governed by separate state laws. State law requires counties to keep death certificates, which list the cause of death. But the state also maintains an online registry – and only spouses, immediate family or others with a direct interest have access to that information.

Vanderburgh County officials say they maintain all their records on the database. And because state law restricts access to that information, the public and the newspaper can’t obtain the cause of death from it.

The health department’s attorney, Joseph Harrison, argued that to receive the death certificate a person must meet the requirements and have “direct interest in the matter.”

“To me, the legislature has already spoken on this issue it is clear you can’t go to department of health and ask for the death certificate with the cause of death listed,” said Harrison.

But attorney Patrick Shoulders, representing the paper and Ward, argued that the statewide registry is separate from the health department’s statutory responsibility to maintain death certificates and release them to the public.

The Indiana Supreme Court took the case under advisement and will rule at a later date.

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