Unanimous Supreme Court holds death certificates are public records

Taking what it called a “plain reading” of the state statute, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled death certificates which include the cause of death are public records and should be available to anyone who requests access.

The Supreme Court reversed the ruling from the Vanderburgh Circuit Court that limited access to cause of death information. The lower court held that a private citizen with no “direct interest in the matter or the information” could only inspect the “permanent record” at the local health department which does not list the reason for the death.

Disagreeing, the Supreme Court found the certificates of death that doctors, coroners and funeral directors file with county health departments are public records. Justice Mark Massa, writing for a unanimous court, acknowledged the balance between private personal information and the public’s right to know.

 “In our society, death is an intimate and personal matter,” Massa wrote in Evansville Courier & Press and Rita Ward v. Vanderburgh County Health Department, 82S04-1401-PL-49. “We recognize that public disclosure of the details of a decedent’s death may cause pain to his family and friends. We are also mindful of the importance of open and transparent government to the health of our body politic. Our General Assembly has considered these competing interests and, insofar as we can determine, concluded that the public interest outweighs the private.”
The dispute began in June 2012 when the Vanderburgh County Health Department denied two requests from Rita Ward and the Evansville Courier & Press to review local death records from May 2012.

Both the trial court and the Indiana Court of Appeals agreed with the Vanderburgh County Health Department that the death certificates are not public records. Specifically, the department cited two statutes, Indiana Code 16-37-1-8 and -10, that it believed declare death certificates confidential.

In reaching the opposite conclusion, the Supreme Court pointed to a substantially similar case from 1975 where the Court of Appeals ruled death certificates were public records.

“We see no reason to reach a different conclusion today,” Massa wrote. “As we read the statute, the General Assembly has drawn a distinction between a certificate of death, which is intended to record cause of death data for use by health officials, and a certification of death registration, which is intended to authenticate the death for the purpose of property disposition. The former is a public record while the latter is confidential.”

For I.C. 16-37-1-10, the Supreme Court said a plain reading of the statute concludes that a member of the public cannot inspect or copy the record and files concerning vital statistics from the Indiana State Department of Health but can view that information at the local county health departments.

“…we cannot say with certainty that this madness has no method,” Massa wrote. “The General Assembly could have intended to distribute the administrative burden of record production among local health departments rather than letting it fall solely upon the State Health Department. Indeed, it has done likewise with regard to other public records; any citizen may obtain criminal records from a county clerk, Ind. Code 10-13-3-32 (2010), but he may not obtain those same records from the State Police unless he meets certain statutory criteria. Ind. Code 10-13-3-27(a) (2010 & Supp. 2013). Accordingly, we decline the Department’s invitation to ignore the plain language of the statute and second-guess the legislature’s judgment.”

The Supreme Court remanded the case for entry of summary judgment in plaintiffs’ favor. It also instructed the trial court to determine whether to award plaintiffs attorney fees.

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