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Badger: Supreme Court will hear death records dispute

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badger-steven Badger

The Indiana Supreme Court will hear oral argument May 8 in a dispute over public access to county death records. The case, Evansville Courier & Press v. Vanderburgh County Health Department, raises the issue of whether a county health department’s death certificates, including the cause of death, are public records under the Indiana Access to Public Records Act.

Last summer, the Indiana Court of Appeals held that, although some death records kept by county health departments are specifically designated by statute as being “open to public inspection,” the cause of death was not among them and therefore is not subject to disclosure under APRA. In so ruling, the Court of Appeals expressly disagreed with a 1975 Court of Appeals decision under an earlier version of Indiana’s death records laws.

Traditionally, county death certificates, including the cause of death, have been open to public inspection from county health departments even though the same information has not been available from the state department of health’s electronic “death registration system” created in 2011. Unlike county records, the state system is exempted from public access in its entirety. However, the availability of the cause of death information from county health departments has permitted journalists to investigate public health issues, including news stories about the misuse of prescription medications, drug safety, medical errors and infectious disease. Earlier this year, for example, the Herald Bulletin in Anderson reported upon the deaths of 31 patients of a local clinic whose deaths were attributed to misuse of prescription medications.

The availability of death certificates to all Hoosiers also allows citizens to research their family histories. That benefits not only amateur genealogists but also citizens trying to identify potential genetic health issues.

Laws protecting citizens’ access to public records and public meetings facilitate citizen oversight of the operations and affairs of government. If government is to function as “the servant of the people and not their master” (an express purpose of APRA), citizens must be privy to information the government receives and how the government goes about the business of governing.

Access laws are hardly controversial, but it is easy to become blasé about enforcement of access laws in many situations. In the heat of controversy, even dedicated public officials will yearn to take refuge in secrecy. Fortunately, there are committed advocates both within and outside government who work to safeguard the public’s rights of access. Among them is Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller, whose office filed an amicus brief in support of the Evansville Courier & Press and arguing in favor of disclosure of county death certificates.

Public access disputes are rarely sexy. The Evansville Courier & Press case, for example, involves neither scandal nor political intrigue. However, the cause of death information included in death certificates is critical for investigative reporting of public health threats. It is hard to think of any societal issues more important than the public’s health. If government were able to hide information it gathers and receives relating to public health issues, it would be far more difficult for citizens to determine how well the government is protecting public health and to reach consensus on related public policy issues.

Ultimately, public records laws ensure government accountability. Without a strong commitment to maintaining public access to information, representative democracy could wither and die – ironic as such an outcome would be in the Internet era when information is readily available to all.•

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Steven Badger represents the Hoosier State Press Association, which filed an amicus curiae brief in support of the Evansville Courier & Press. Badger represents media organizations and journalists in First Amendment, defamation and media law matters. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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  1. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  2. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  3. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  4. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

  5. I am compelled to announce that I am not posting under any Smith monikers here. That said, the post below does have a certain ring to it that sounds familiar to me: http://www.catholicnewworld.com/cnwonline/2014/0907/cardinal.aspx

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