The Missouri Supreme Court gave transparency advocates a big victory this week when it ruled government agencies cannot charge for the time attorneys spend reviewing public records that are requested under the state Sunshine Law.
In a unanimous decision, the court ruled that Gov. Mike Parson’s administration violated the state’s Sunshine Law when it improperly redacted records, charged exorbitant fees and knowingly and purposely violated the state’s open records law in connection with a records request pertaining to former Gov. Eric Greitens.
Attorney Elad Gross filed a records request with Parson’s office in 2018, seeking records related to campaign contributions as part of a larger investigation into “dark money” nonprofit organizations, according to the Missouri Independent.
In response, the governor’s office identified 13,659 records that would cost an estimated $3,618.40 in “research/processing” time to produce, a total that included attorney fees. Gross filed suit, arguing the Sunshine Law doesn’t authorize reimbursement for attorney review time.
A lower court ruled against Gross, but he appealed, and the case made its way to the Missouri Supreme Court. Writing for the court, Judge Patricia Breckenridge ruled attorney review time has no relation to providing access to records or making copies of them, and the law does not authorize a public governmental body to charge attorney review time as research time.
The high court vacated the lower court’s decision, agreeing with nine of the 10 points raised by Gross in his appeal.
Make no mistake — the court’s decision is an important win for those who believe in the principles of open government. The state’s Sunshine Law allows governmental bodies to charge requesters fees for research time. That’s reasonable.
But too often, governmental bodies incorporate lawyers’ fees in their estimates in order to inflate the costs and discourage or even thwart records requests. Few citizens have the means to pay thousands of dollars to obtain records.
The court’s decision makes it clear lawyer fees can’t be weaponized to prevent access to public documents. That’s a victory for open government and ultimately for all Missourians.