Court case may drastically restrict access to public records in Texas

Dallas is going after Texas in a court case that could dramatically affect how public records are handled in the state.

Texas has a pretty open public records law.  The Texas Public Information Act (PIA) has required state and local government to respond to open records requests within a timely manner and for a reasonable fee since 1973.  You can find out about the more common types of public records in Texas like a birth certificate or a driving history online.  Most of these records are maintained at the county level, but some are available from a state office.

The court case that could change everything all started with a request for public records.  Under PIA section 552.301, governmental bodies are required to respond with an estimate of when the information will be available within 10 business days of receiving an open records request.  If they don’t respond within 10 business days, they are required under section 552.302 to send a written request to the Texas Office of the Attorney General that asks for the authority to keep the information private.  If they don’t do either of those then a fine is imposed.

Well, Dallas apparently missed those deadlines on a few requests and didn’t want to pay the fines for not complying with state law.  So, they decided to file cases against Texas claiming that they should be able to withhold records that contain communication between attorneys and clients.  They filed two cases that were virtually identical.  One court ruled in their favor and another ruled against them.  So the cases moved on to the Thirteenth Court of Appeals and the Texas Attorney General has gotten actively involved.

Dallas is arguing that they are allowed to withhold attorney-client privileged information already as long as they get approval from the Attorney General within 10 business days.  The city just wants the ability to withhold that information without having to request permission from the Attorney General.

If Dallas ends up getting what they want it means that the PIA will be weakened and that access to public records in Texas will be dramatically diminished.  An interesting loophole that Dallas might be trying to take advantage of is that if they hire and outside counsel to handle their public records request then all of a sudden all their information will contain attorney-client privileged communications.  This would allow Dallas and other governmental bodies in Texas to only respond to public records requests that they want to.  This would be a terrible blow for everyone that advocates for an accountable government.

The status quo for accessing public records in Texas has existed since 1973 and has worked rather well.  Why does Dallas feel the need to change it now?