Court finds scholarship nomination records are public documents
LOUISIANA — The Court of Appeals in New Orleans ordered state legislators to disclose nomination records for university scholarships to a reporter at the New Orleans Times-Picayune in early October.
In the opinion written by Appeals Court Judge Charles R. Ward, the court decided that scholarship records are public documents under the Louisiana Public Records Act and that Times-Picayune reporter Peter Nicholas has the right to view them.
Nicholas and the Times-Picayune Publishing Co. requested the opportunity to view and copy the legislative scholarship nominations from each Louisiana legislator in June 1993, but later filed suit in Civil District Court for the Parrish of New Orleans when six legislators denied their request in December.
The legislators who refused claimed that nominating forms for the Tulane University scholarships were not public records. They also claimed they did not keep records of the forms after they were sent to Tulane.
Both the trial and appeals courts rejected these legislators’ contentions, stating that one of the purposes of Louisiana’s Public Records Act is to insure that public business is subject to public scrutiny.
“We didn’t think [the documents] were public,” said Alfred W. Speer, II, attorney for the representatives. “We considered them private documents Tulane generates for an internal purpose. If you sent me a letter asking me to check a box, sign it and send it back to you, that would be your private document. But the court disagreed with us,” he said.
The court also vacated a writ of mandamus to produce the records, stating that a mandamus was unnecessary since the legislators would comply with its decision. The plaintiffs are seeking reconsideration in appellate court on this issue.
“This is the serious issue for us now,” said Mark B. Holton, attorney for the Times- Picayune. “This could set a precedent for other [freedom of information] cases in the state if the mandamus is not issued.”
Payment of attorney’s fees is also at stake if the writ of mandamus is not issued. By Louisiana law, the prevailing party recovers attorney’s fees from its opponent, but only if it prevails in all issues of the case.
(Times-Picayune Publishing Co. v. Johnson; Media Counsel: Mark B. Holton and Jack M. Weiss, III)