Indigent defender program subject to open records law

Freedom of Information | Feature | November 4, 1996

Indigent defender program subject to open records law

11/04/96

LOUISIANA--The Orleans Indigent Defender Program (OIDP) is a public body subject to state public records law, the state Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled in early October. The court held that OIDP must provide the public and press access to case records, budget and investigatory records involving the appointment of lawyers for indigent defendants.

Daniel Denoux, an attorney, brought suit in a New Orleans circuit court in mid-January after requests he filed in December 1995 and again in early January 1996 were ignored. The trial court ruled that OIDP must allow Denoux to review and inspect the requested documents.

In affirming the trial court's decision, the appeals court held that OIDP, the organization that secures and compensates legal counsel for indigent defendants, was subject to the open records law because it fit the definition of "public body" under state law. The law provides that a "public body" is "any office, agency, board, or any other instrumentality of state, parish, or municipal government designated as an entity to perform a governmental or proprietary function."

The court reasoned that OIDP was created by a state statute and performs a legislatively mandated public function. The court held that unless the specific records requested were subject to an exemption under the law, OIDP's records must be made accessible to the public.

OIDP had argued that it was not a "public body" because it was not directly financed by the state. OIDP's funding and supervision are provided by the state judiciary and not the legislative or executive branches. But the court reasoned that although the state does not directly fund OIDP, it does provide a means of funding. More importantly, the court noted, the public records law does not include state funding as a requirement in its definition of "public body."

OIDP also argued that opening its records to the public would place a burden the defense which the prosecution could use to its advantage. Moreover, OIDP asserted that opening its records could violate the attorney/client privilege. The court replied that the open records law provides a means to resolve this problem, through an exception for records that might violate the defendant's right to a fair trial if disclosed.

The court further stated that "exemptions from disclosure should be narrowly construed because they are in derogation of the public's right to know how government affairs are conducted." (Denoux v. Bertel; Plaintiff's Counsel: William Larzelere, New Orleans)