A federal appeals court on Tuesday rejected a Virginia prisoner’s efforts to obtain prison documents through the state’s open records law.
A unanimous three-judge panel on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. (4th Cir.) upheld a lower court’s decision, ruling that Joseph Giarratano failed to prove a state statute that prohibits inmates from filing state Freedom of Information Act requests was created with no legitimate purpose.
The panel followed a “rational basis standard” to evaluate whether Giarratano had met the burden of refuting the justification for the 1997 statute. Under this standard, the plaintiff must disprove every conceivable basis that might support the state interest in in the legislation in question.
Giarratano failed to make his case in light of “the readily apparent justification for the legislation,” Judge John Preston Bailey wrote for the court.
Frazier Solsberry, one of three attorneys representing Giarratano, said that the court has made it essentially impossible for his client to win a prisoner mistreatment case like this.
The documents that Giarratano was requesting – which cover the prison’s treatment protocol for hepatitis C – were going to help him decide whether to file a lawsuit alleging mistreatment for that condition. Yet, the court is not giving Giarratano access to evidence to prove or disprove anything, Solsberry said.
“The case has imposed on Mr. Giarratano an obligation to disprove every possible rationale basis,” Solsberry said. “And frankly, without discovery of what the rational bases of [the district court’s reasons] were, that’s an impossible task.”
Bailey did clarify in the opinion, however, that this decision did not examine whether the exclusion of inmates from the state records law is valid or not; only if Giarratano had stated a plausible claim to overcome the burden that the rationale basis standard puts forth with regards to the statute.
Solsberry said the decision unnecessarily limits the state’s FOIA law.
“The whole point of FOIA is to open up the government to the citizens,” he said. “And, any time you limit that in any way you’re carving out a little area – either by nature of the information or by nature of who’s requesting it – that’s not going to be open for the public to see what their government is doing."