State cannot withhold statutory code tapes
MISSOURI–A state official who refused to release a computer tape containing the state statutory code was ordered by a state appeals court in mid-March to hand over a copy of the tape and to pay the requestor’s legal fees.
Director of Statutes Ralph Kidd had withheld the records in part because of contracts between the state and private publishing companies which he argued gave exclusive publishing rights to the companies.
The state Court of Appeals in Kansas City held that the Director’s sale of the tape through a bidding process violated the state’s Sunshine Law because it “essentially limits access to a public record to those who bid the highest.” The decision affirmed that of a trial court in Jefferson City.
Although the bidding process was found to violate the law, the court pointed out that “because the legislature has set up a fund to receive profits from sales, the profit from statute sales in itself does not violate the sunshine law.”
Prior to the lawsuit, the state provided “raw” tapes to companies for a flat fee and a percentage of sales paid to the state. The companies in turn would re-format the tapes, add computerized search programs and sell them to attorneys and the public at a profit.
Kidd argued unsuccessfully that the state’s Director of Statutes was not a public body covered by the open records law and that the computer tapes, as opposed to printed statutory text, were not “public records” under the law.
Judge Harold Lowenstein dismissed Kidd’s distinction between computer and print formats as well as the notion that the state code was not a public record. “[G]iven a legal system which charges the public with having a knowledge of the law and proclaims that ignorance of the law is no excuse, … it is hard to think of a more important public record than the general laws of the state,” Judge Lowenstein wrote. (Deaton v. Director/Revisor of Statutes; Media Counsel: Patrick Deaton, Springfield)