AG Rokita reaches resolution with political pundit over press conference access

Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita and political pundit Abdul-Hakim Shabazz have ended their public battle that began at a press conference about robocalls with a one-page motion to voluntarily dismiss the lawsuit and pay their own legal fees.

The Stipulation to Dismiss was filed Monday, just four business days after Rokita filed a reply in support of his motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction and his motion to stay.

According to the docket, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana has not ruled on either motion.

The joint stipulation motion states the parties agree that Shabazz is “not barred from future in-person press conferences” held by Rokita and will be “allowed admission consistent with terms and conditions” placed on other media.

In announcing the resolution, the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana stated the lawsuit has been dismissed because Rokita had agreed to treat Shabazz like other journalists.

“A free press is a cornerstone of our democracy,” said ACLU of Indiana Legal Director Ken Falk. “It acts as both a check against government power and a tool for enabling the public to make informed decisions. This is why it’s critical for journalists to have the protections they need to keep the public informed.”

Rokita’s office also applauded the resolution, but reiterated that no one has a right to attend a press conference.

“We are pleased to have secured a swift dismissal of the action, which saves taxpayer dollars and allows us to focus more on protecting Hoosier values from the attacks that are coming on the heels of the General Assembly session that just concluded,” Kelly Stevenson, press secretary for the Indiana Attorney General, said in an email. “There is no automatic right to attend press events in person just because someone possesses a security badge, especially when the event is accessible to everyone — in real time — with the ability to pose questions.”

The dispute started when Shabazz was prohibited from attending a press conference in the fall of 2021 where Rokita talked about robocalls. A key disagreement in the litigation was over whether Shabazz was barred from future press conferences.

In the reply brief, Rokita indicated his office did not issue a blanket denial of access.

“Plaintiff faces no likelihood of future injury that can justify federal jurisdiction to entertain his claim for relief because he is not banned from attending as a journalist future press conference held by the Office of the Attorney General,” it stated.

In his complaint filed in February, Shabazz asserted he had been barred by Rokita from the attorney general’s press conferences. Also, he stated he remained barred because Rokita and the office didn’t remove the ban.

Rokita’s office contended it is accessible to the public.

“Our office remains a leader for access, transparency and engagement with the great people of Indiana,” Stevenson stated in an email. “Stay tuned for future action from the office on these efforts.”

After he was prevented from participating in the in-person robocall press conference, Shabazz filed a public records request with the Indiana Attorney General’s Office. It is unclear the status of his request now that the lawsuit has reached a settlement.

Shabazz was seeking a comprehensive list of documents including information on the credentialing of media, approvals or denials of media requests and interviews Rokita had given since being sworn into office.

About a week after he filed his lawsuit, Shabazz filed a complaint with the Indiana Public Access Counselor, asserting the Rokita had violated the Access to Public Records Act by failing respond within a reasonable time.

The office countered its response time was reasonable given the state law requirement at each document be manually reviewed to ensure compliance with the APRA and the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct. Also, the state’s top attorney asserted Shabazz was using the APRA as a substitute for discovery in the lawsuit. As a result, the office concluded it was not obligated to respond to the public records request.

In an opinion issued March 22  – the same day Rokita filed his reply to the motion to dismiss and his motion to stay – Public Access Counselor Luke Britt sided with Shabazz.

The counselor noted federal litigation is not an exemption from disclosure under the APRA. Moreover, Britt determined the Indiana Attorney General’s Office would not have needed an “inordinate amount of time to review, curate and produce” the documents and therefore the office had been given “ample time” to fulfill the request.

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