Read the ruling: http://blogs.wvgazette.com/watchdog/CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The state Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously overturned a Jefferson County court ruling that open government advocates said had threatened to greatly narrow West Virginia's public records law.
Justices concluded that records about the public's business must be released under the state Freedom of Information Act, regardless of whether they were actually generated by a government agency or not.
Writing for the court, Justice Menis Ketchum threw out a decision by Jefferson Circuit Judge David Sanders that the definition of public records in West Virginia applied only to documents created by state or local agencies.
Sanders had issued that ruling in support of Jefferson County Clerk Jennifer Maghan, who had refused to release petitions in a referendum election drive because her office had not created the petitions.
"The clerk's suggested definition of a public record would severely limit the scope of the act and the right of every person to inspect or copy any public record of a public body in this state," Ketchum wrote in his opinion.
Under West Virginia's FOIA, a public record "includes any writing related to the conduct of the public's business, prepared, owned and retained by a public body."
Ketchum wrote that by using the word "includes" the Legislature was simply providing an "illustrative definition," and that reading it any other way would go against the law's purpose of making as many records possible open for public review.
Justices also cited a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in ruling that residents who signed the referendum petitions did not have a First Amendment right to keep the documents secret.
In the case, The Shepherdstown Observer newspaper sued to try to gain access to petitions asking for a vote to overturn a new Jefferson County zoning ordinance. Justices sent the case back to Sanders, with orders that he compel Maghan to release the petitions.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.