The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a friend-of-the-court brief Tuesday asking the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals to review a decision barring the release of e-mail messages between a justice and the head of a coal company with a pending case.
The records case, The Associated Press v. Canterbury, was filed after the AP’s request for the e-mail messages under the West Virginia Freedom on Information Act was denied. The AP won access to some e-mail messages, but not others, at the trial court level. West Virginia’s judicial branch is subject to its freedom of information law, under which e-mail messages are treated the same as any other records; that is, if they are public records, they should generally be released.
The communications at issue in Canterbury are particularly important, the brief argued, because they were exchanged between then-Justice Elliott Maynard and Donald Blankenship, the CEO of coal producer Massey Energy. At the time, Massey had an appeal involving a $50 million jury verdict pending before the state’s highest court. Maynard and Blankenship had also been seen vacationing together in Monte Carlo while the case was pending.
“I can’t imagine a more obvious example of why citizens should be able to see e-mail correspondence of a public official,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy A. Dalglish. “The relationship between this justice and this business executive has generated national attention and the public needs to know the scope of that relationship.”
The Reporters Committee, joined by the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia, the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, the Radio and Television News Directors Association, and the Society of Professional Journalists, filed a brief supporting the AP.
“The requested records — effectively, communications between the court and a party before it — constitute both public records and court records that must be disclosed to the requester,” the brief argued. “The public interest in disclosure is significant, as these records will shed light on a judicial officer’s campaign for reelection; the Court’s thinking as communicated, ex parte, to a party immediately following the oral arguments of the party’s case; and the effectiveness of the state’s rule on judicial recusals.”