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State bar's records not subject to release, court says

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   MASSACHUSETTS   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   March 29, 2007

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   MASSACHUSETTS   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   March 29, 2007

State bar’s records not subject to release, court says

  • The Supreme Judicial Court rules a board that handles the discipline of lawyers does not have to comply with the public records law.

March 29, 2007  ·   The highest court in Massachusetts has ruled that the organization that oversees the discipline of that state’s lawyers is not a government entity subject to the Massachusetts open records law.

In January 2006, Michael L. Kettenbach requested information on a former judge who was forced to resign for misconduct and subsequently switched her status with the state bar to “inactive,” meaning she would not longer be authorized to practice law in Massachusetts.

An attorney may voluntarily switch to inactive status to avoid complying with certain administrative requirements associated with being an active member of the bar, such as paying fees and attending continuing education classes. By contrast, being “disbarred” means an attorney is forbidden from practicing law, usually because of misconduct.

Kettenbach sought documents related to the judge’s professional status from the state bar’s disciplinary committee, the Board of Bar Overseers. When the board refused to comply with the records request, Kettenbach filed suit.

On Friday, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the Board of Bar Overseers is a component of the judicial branch of government, and thus exempt from the requirements of the state public records law.

“[T]he public records law applies to only one of the three branches of State government, namely, the Executive branch,” the court wrote.

Kettenbach had argued that regulations excluding the “judiciary” from the mandates of the public records law did not apply to every component of the judicial branch, especially to an administrative office of the state bar such as the board of overseers. The court declined to address this argument, saying Kettenbach had not adequately set forth his legal reasoning for such a contention in his appeal.

(Kettenbach v. Board of Bar Overseers, Requester’s Counsel: Thomas B. Merritt, Littleton, N.H.)NW

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