On Monday, the Oklahoma Supreme Court unanimously denied an effort to overturn a lower court’s ruling that cleared the way for a lawsuit to obtain records on the botched execution of Clayton Lockett.
Ziva Branstetter, an Oklahoma-based reporter for The Frontier, and Tulsa World filed the lawsuit in December against Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin and Oklahoma Department of Public Safety Commissioner Michael Thompson for withholding public records requested under the Oklahoma Open Records Act.
Oklahoma’s open records law, unlike other states and the federal FOIA, does not specify how many days a government agency has to respond to a request for records. But it does require public bodies to “provide prompt, reasonable access.” Branstetter and Tulsa World filed suit more than seven months after making their first request for records relating to the Lockett execution. They have argued that this months-long delay violates the open records law, and authorizes judicial relief.
In April, Oklahoma district court Judge Patricia Parish denied motions to dismiss filed by Governor Fallin and Commissioner Thompson, rejecting their argument that – as long as the government does not expressly deny a request – no amount of delay authorizes a lawsuit.
Parish disagreed, ruling that the lawsuit should proceed and holding that a delay in production can amount to a denial.
Fallin and Thompson asked the Oklahoma Supreme Court to review Judge Parish’s decision.
In their applications, the officials argued that Oklahoma courts have no power to hear a case where a member of the public alleges that the government is taking an unreasonable amount of time to respond to records requests. They asked the Supreme Court to enter a writ of prohibition to prevent the case from proceeding.
On June 8, the Oklahoma Supreme Court unanimously denied the applications. While no written opinion was issued, the Court’s decision leaves Parish’s ruling in effect, and sends a strong message to public officials in Oklahoma that they cannot evade judicial review when they unreasonably delay responding to requests for access to public records.
On Wednesday, Parish lifted a stay that had been in place while the Supreme Court considered the defendants’ applications, and the case will now move forward.
Lawyers from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, along with Bob Nelon, an Oklahoma media lawyer with the law firm of Hall Estill, are representing Branstetter and Tulsa World. More information about the case can be found at the Reporters Committee’s Litigation page.