Court hearing arguments over lawmaker email privacy

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Indiana lawmakers should be required to comply with their own public records law and release documents, including email correspondence with campaign donors and lobbying groups, a coalition of consumer advocacy groups told the Indiana Supreme Court on Thursday.

The consumer groups, including Citizens Action Coalition, are suing the House Republican Caucus in a quest to obtain emails that House energy committee Chairman Eric Koch, R-Bedford, may have exchanged with Duke Energy and Indianapolis Power and Light.

Koch, who has reported an economic interest in dozens of oil, gas and energy companies, sponsored an unsuccessful bill last year that would have cut how much utilities must pay for excess electricity generated by home solar power systems, which opponents of the bill said would eliminate the incentive to buy them. A message left with a spokesman for Koch was not returned Thursday.

But Speaker Brian Bosma's House Republicans denied their request and a Marion County Judge ruled last year that he could not interfere in the operation of the legislative branch.

"They spend a lot of time fundraising and the public is entitled to know … who is trying to influence public policy," attorney William Groth told the court. "If we slam the door of transparency to the public, how is the public going to have confidence in what the Legislature does?"

Bosma said recently that releasing emails would violate the confidentiality of constituents who sometime reach out for help in embarrassing or delicate circumstances.

Lawmakers have a longstanding and bi-partisan practice of denying requests for records like emails and text messages, despite language included in the preamble of Indiana's public records law, which declares: "it is the public policy of the state that all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and employees."

Recently, Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate joined Bosma's House GOP in denying a request for emails and schedules made by The Associated Press. A lawyer for House Democratic Minority Leader Scott Pelath said last month that documents requested by the AP were being reviewed, though his office has not fulfilled the request.

Groth acknowledged there may be good cause for some types of emails to be withheld. But he argued that there are still "compelling" public interest justifying the release of documents.

"If certain interest groups were having certain communications with legislators who end up sponsoring a law, I think the public is entitled to know," he said.

Lawmakers don't necessarily see it that way, though, and point to an existing exemption in the law for lawmakers "work product." An attorney for the House Republicans told the court Thursday that the "work product" exemption should be liberally interpreted because many other aspects of state government are open to the public.

"What we're talking about here is a very narrow slice, a very narrow exception to what is otherwise open transparent government at the General Assembly," said House GOP attorney Geoffrey Slaughter, who is currently a candidate to fill on upcoming vacancy on the state Supreme Court.

Justices on the court appeared skeptical of Slaughter's argument, noting lawmakers could pass a law exempting themselves. The Legislature tried in 2001, but the bill was vetoed by then-Democratic Gov. Frank O'Bannon.

"The legislature wrote the statute and included itself," Justice Robert Rucker said Thursday. "Now you come before this court and say, 'Do for us what we refuse to do for ourselves' and I'm having trouble with that."

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