ARIZONA–Joseph Burchell, a reporter for the Tucson Arizona Star, will receive the 1993 electronic mail records of the Pima County Assessor’s Office under an appellate court ruling after the state Supreme Court in Phoenix declined to review the case in late March.
The August ruling of the state Court of Appeals in Tucson, effective now that further appeal has been denied, rejects county officials’ arguments that disclosure of the e-mail tapes might reveal deliberations, intrude upon employee privacy or impede criminal investigation of the assessor’s office.
Under the Arizona public records statute, records are presumed to be open unless a public official can demonstrate that secrecy furthers an important public or privacy interest, the appeals court said. The county attorney who was sued made no specific claims that any of the records should be withheld, the appeals court said.
A dissenting judge on the appeals panel noted that the newspaper’s request encompassed 13,000 computer entries–all personnel records, telephone messages and inter-office communications for the year. He said the request raised legitimate concerns about the effects of wholesale disclosures of e-mail on privacy in the workplace. The technology may have “outpaced the law,” he wrote.
In early 1994 Star reporter Burchell wrote a series about questionable assessments by the county assessor and other problems in his office. The series prompted an investigation by the County Board of Supervisors which subpoenaed the backup tapes from the assessor’s computer and delivered them to the county attorney.
Burchell said that when he asked for copies of the tape, he first was told they could not be “unscrambled.” However, when the Star offered to hire an expert to unscramble them, the attorney again refused, saying the tapes might be evidence in a criminal case, Burchell said.
When the Star sued in March 1994 in Superior Court in Tucson, the U.S. Attorney’s office subpoenaed the records, and the county attorney claimed he no longer could make them available.
But in June, the Superior Court in Tucson ordered copies of the tapes turned over to Burchell, and the appeals court affirmed. (Star Publishing v. Pima County Attorney’s Office; Media Counsel: Lane Oden, Tucson)
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.