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Court withholds release of letters sent to judge before sentencing

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OHIO--In mid-August, the state Supreme Court in Columbus denied the Akron Beacon Journal's request for the release of letters received…

OHIO–In mid-August, the state Supreme Court in Columbus denied the Akron Beacon Journal’s request for the release of letters received by a trial court judge in the course of considering what sentence to impose on Nathaniel Lewis, a man convicted of rape.

In a 4-3 decision, the court held that the letters would not be made available to the public because they are not “records” under Ohio’s Open Records Act. According to the act, a “record” includes “any document” that is “received by” a public office and “serves to document” an office’s “activities,” “functions” or “decisions.” The court determined that the letters did not satisfy the definition because the trial court judge did not use the letters in her decision to sentence Lewis.

The court stated that it would be “absurd” to rule that the letters were public because then “any document received by a public office and retained by that office would be subject to the records act regardless of whether the public office ever used it to perform a public function.”

Prior to sentencing Lewis in July 1997, Judge Beth Whitmore received seven unsolicited letters from members of the public trying to influence her decision. Judge Whitmore read and kept the letters, but stated that they did not influence her decision to sentence Lewis to eight years in prison.

In dissent, Justice Deborah Cook wrote that the letters should be subject to disclosure under the state open records law and stated, “The public has an unquestioned interest in knowing which individuals or entities are attempting to influence a judge’s decision in a pending case when the records documenting such attempts are received, considered and integrated by the judge into her files.” (State ex rel. Beacon Journal Publishing Co. v. Whitmore; Media Counsel: Amie Bruggeman, Akron)