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Judge rules Indiana lawmakers can keep emails private

August 12, 2015

A state representative's emails and other correspondence with utility company officials about proposed legislation can remain private, a Marion County judge has ruled.

The decision came Tuesday after a court hearing on a lawsuit filed against Republican Rep. Eric Koch of Bedford and the House GOP caucus.

Koch, who is chairman of the House utilities committee, sponsored an unsuccessful bill this year backed by Indiana's utilities that would have cut the amount power companies must pay when they buy excess electricity generated by home solar power systems.

The Citizens Action Coalition, Common Cause Indiana and the Washington-based Energy and Policy Institute had argued that, under the state's public records law, Koch's correspondence with the utility companies about that bill should be public. But Judge James Osborn dismissed the lawsuit with a seven-line ruling, in which he cited a 1993 Indiana Supreme Court decision that it couldn't interfere with the operation of the legislative branch.

Kerwin Olson, Citizens Action Coalition's executive director, told The Associated Press that he expected an appeal of ruling, but said it would first have to be reviewed with the other groups who joined the suit.

Opponents of Koch's bill had argued it would make small-scale solar systems economically impractical.

The Energy and Policy Institute initially sought access to Koch's correspondence with the utility officials.

Lawyers for House Republicans said during the hearing that ordering a release of the records could have implications beyond the energy lobby and could make communications sent by constituents to their legislators public, The Indianapolis Star reported.

William Groth, an attorney for the activist groups, countered that public disclosure laws don't keep people from participating in democracy.

"We can't imagine lobbyists are going to be chilled from communication with individual members because some of those communications might be subject to disclosure under (the public records law,)" Groth said.

Earlier this spring, state Public Access Counselor Luke Britt issued an advisory opinion stating that the Legislature is subject to the public records law regarding Koch's correspondence. In response, House leaders changed policies to exempt documents, notes and other writing or records in any form from public view if they are created, edited or modified by House members or their staff.

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