The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas submits legal briefs in important cases dealing with the public’s access to government. The FOI Foundation has participated in the following “sunshine” cases, seeking to shine more light on government.
Texas Open Meetings Act: The FOI Foundation submitted a friend of the court, or amicus, brief supporting the Texas Open Meetings Act after several public officials challenged the provision of the act allowing criminal sanctions for public officials who hold meetings out of public view. The officials claimed the penalties violated their First Amendment rights. A federal district court rejected that argument and upheld the constitutionality of the Texas Open Meetings Act. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with that lower court ruling. The U.S. Supreme Court in March 2013 declined to hear the case, so the law was upheld.
Governor’s Travel Records: When the Hearst and Cox news organizations sought to have detailed travel spending vouchers released for the governor’s taxpayer-funded security detail, the FOI Foundation filed a court brief supporting the news companies and arguing that the information should be revealed. After two lower courts ruled the travel vouchers should be made public, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that those detailed records can be kept secret in order to protect the safety of the governor.
County Lawsuit Settlement Records: The Victoria Advocate sought a copy of a federal lawsuit settlement agreement between a former government employee and Calhoun County. The county said the records were not public and not in its possession. The FOI Foundation supported the Advocate with comments submitted by FOIFT board member Joe Larsen to the Texas Attorney General’s Office. The AG’s office ruled in November 2013 that the county must release the records, citing the use of public money to write, produce and maintain the settlement.
Legislator Documents: A state legislator’s communications with the American Legislative Exchange Council think tank should be made public under the Texas Public Information Act, the FOI Foundation urged in a brief filed with the Attorney General’s Office in August 2013. The foundation supported the position of the Center for Media and Democracy, which sought the records. Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, and ALEC asked that the documents be kept out of public view. The attorney general’s office ruled in September 2013 that the records must be released.
Governor’s Email Deletion Policy: The Texas governor’s office email deletion policy was the subject of formal complaints filed by the FOI Foundation in 2008 with the Travis County District Attorney’s Office and the Texas Attorney General’s Office. The foundation argued that Gov. Rick Perry’s office was destroying public information by routinely deleting emails every seven days unless someone had requested them under the Texas Public Information Act. The governor’s policy was initially brought to light by Wisconsin citizen activist John Washburn. The district attorney and attorney general declined to file suit in the matter. Gov. Greg Abbott took office in January 2015 and said he was extending the email retention time frame from seven to 30 days.
Right to TPIA Remedy in Court: The Texas Supreme Court has granted the petition and reversed and remanded the First Court of Appeals’ decision to require a Texas Public Information Act requester to wait for an attorney general ruling before going to court to seek a writ of mandamus to compel release of public information. The Court rejected the city’s argument that public information is the same as information deemed public by the Attorney General. The Court stated that while the governmental body is entitled to “insist on its position to a final ruling…a requestor is not required to defer a suit for mandamus.” The lawsuit stemmed from a request by two Houston area citizens for a report on red light cameras.
Economic development non-profit and public funds: The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas filed an amicus brief with the Texas Supreme Court arguing that the non-profit Greater Houston Partnership is a governmental body, and as such is subject to disclosures under the Texas Public Information Act. The brief was in response to an appeal filed by the partnership against the attorney general’s office. The FOI Foundation of Texas argued that the partnership, which performs economic development duties for the city of Houston, is supported in part by public funds for the performance of traditional government services. However, in a 6-3 opinion the Texas Supreme Court ruled in June 2015 that GHP does not have to open its financial books to public inspection. The court said that the Public Information Act’s requirement that an entity be “supported” by public funds really meant that it must be “sustained” by public funds to be a governmental body.