Des Moines, Iowa — Today the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously determined that Gov. Kim Reynolds cannot violate Iowa's Open Records law by failing to respond to journalists' public information requests.
The decision was part of a lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Iowa on behalf of a group of journalists who repeatedly and persistently tried to get information, starting as early as April 2020, regarding the COVID pandemic as well as other public records.
For several months and in some cases, well over a year, despite repeated attempts to get a response from the Governor's Office, the journalists heard nothing back. In many cases, they did not even get an acknowledgment of the requests. All the documents requested were clearly public records.
It was only after the journalists filed the lawsuit in December 2021, 18 months after their initial requests, that the Governor's Office then complied with most of the requests, but withheld others. Details about the lawsuit can be found here.
Today's decision determined that the Governor's Office can indeed be held accountable to Iowa’s Open Records law and allows the plaintiffs to proceed with their case against the Governor's Office regarding the wrongful withholding of public information.
Statement from Thomas Story, ACLU of Iowa Staff Attorney:
"Today’s decision from the Iowa Supreme Court reaffirms the public’s right to know.
"In 2020 and 2021, at the height of the pandemic, our clients—members of the press—made lawful requests for public records from the Governor’s Office. These journalists were doing their job to inform the public of matters of great importance. But the Governor’s Office dismissed them and failed to produce the records for over a year. This was not a reasonable delay. When the ACLU of Iowa brought a lawsuit on these journalists’ behalf, the Governor’s Office was able to produce the records in just 18 days. It then attempted to skirt the consequences of its actions by arguing the court could not judge it for its extraordinary delay.
“The Governor’s Office wanted a rule that it and its agencies can ignore public records requests without any consequences. Instead, the Iowa Supreme Court has ruled that nobody is above the law. Consistent with the text of the Open Records law and its past legal decisions, the court has put our state government on notice that it must respond to Open Records requests promptly and meaningfully. If the state expects a delay, it must explain why and how long it will last. It must produce what it can when it can. It must be diligent in its efforts and communicate its progress. It cannot—under any circumstances—simply ignore a request. And if it does, it will face the consequences.
“This unanimous decision from the Iowa Supreme Court is a victory for democracy in the State of Iowa. An effective democracy is transparent and responsive to its people. It does not hide its work and it does not ignore the press. We are pleased with this decision and its impact on the rights of all Iowans to access information."
Statement from Laura Belin of Bleeding Heartland, an award-winning independent news organization that covers state government:
"The pandemic placed unusual demands on many people, and we understood it might take state officials a little longer to process records requests. But the delays continued for many months, long after Gov. Reynolds had ordered state government staff back to their offices and encouraged Iowans to resume their normal lives.
"I appreciate that the Iowa Supreme Court recognized, ‘Extensive delay may—on its own—establish an implicit refusal’ to provide public records.
"The Governor's Office sets the tone for the rest of state government. When the governor's staff ignore records requests for months on end, sometimes for more than a year, it sends a message that complying with the Open Records law is optional. Unfortunately, even though Governor Reynolds ended the public health emergency more than a year ago, some state entities still delay for months before responding to public records requests."
Statement from Randy Evans, Executive Director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council:
“Today’s unanimous decision by the Iowa Supreme Court is an important affirmation that Iowa’s governor is not able to ignore the law that requires all state and local government officials to comply in a timely manner with requests for public records.
"This lawsuit had its origins during the COVID pandemic when the governor and her staff refused for up to 18 months to provide certain public records that journalists requested. It is obvious the people of Iowa had lots of questions about how state government was, or was not, responding to the worst health crisis to face our state in a century.
"It is worth noting the Supreme Court’s decision today included a reminder to government officials that public records must be provided even when it might be inconvenient or embarrassing to do so. And the Court made clear that a refusal to provide records might take the form of a plain 'no' or it simply could be no response at all.
“No other custodian of government records in Iowa would be allowed to sidestep the requirements of the public records law for a year and a half without legal consequences, and the Iowa Freedom of Information Council is gratified the Supreme Court made it abundantly clear the governor cannot disregard the law, either.”
Statement from Kathie Obradovich of the Iowa Capital Dispatch, an independent, not-for-profit statewide news organization:
“On behalf of Iowa Capital Dispatch, we’re grateful the Iowa Supreme Court recognized that for Iowa’s Open Records law to be meaningful, it has to be enforceable and that government officials can’t dodge the law by simply ignoring requests for records. It shouldn’t take a lawsuit to gain access to public documents. It's important for the media and therefore the people of Iowa to receive this important information in a timely manner, especially during a public health crisis.
"We appreciate the excellent work the ACLU of Iowa has done and continues to do to protect Iowans’ right to access information about their government."