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Judge’s correspondence may be public record

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         TEXAS         Freedom of Information         Feb 9, 2000    

Judge’s correspondence may be public record

  • Open records laws define governmental bodies widely enough to include county judges, according to the state attorney general’s office.

The fact that a public official is a county judge does not render his or her correspondence, memos and other writings exempt from disclosure under the open records law, the attorney general’s office announced in a late January letter opinion.

While the open records law generally applies to a county judge, according to the opinion, information about particular cases or proceedings before the court are exempt from disclosure.

A reporter from the Denton Record-Chronicle requested access to memos, letters, e-mail, telephone message slips and other writings received or produced by a Denton County judge. The county attorney’s office sought a ruling from the state on whether it was required to comply with the request.

The county attorney’s office claimed the records law applied only to governmental bodies and not to the judiciary, of which it argued the county judge was a member. But the attorney general’s office, citing a 1978 letter opinion that dealt with a similar question and the definition section of the records law, said the law in fact did define governmental body in such a way as to include county judges.

The county also could not deny a records request merely because a large number of documents had been requested, the opinion stated. The county had argued that because the newspaper requested access to so many records that the request was not specific enough for it to process. Even if a request is vague, the opinion stated, the county had a duty to clarify the request instead of dropping the matter altogether.

The attorney general’s office also rejected the county’s claim that the requested records were not public because they involved attorney-client communication and work product. Only those documents that contain confidential information can be exempt from disclosure by the privileges for attorney-client communication and work product, the attorney general’s office said.

(Letter to Thomas F. Keever, Asst. District Att’ny, Denton County, No. 131820, Jan. 26, 2000)

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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