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Court of Appeals rules against MCSO’s public records request

A panel of Arizona Court of Appeals judges has ruled unanimously that the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office is not entitled to review thousands of documents and e-mails sent by senior officials and staff of the Maricopa County Superior Court.

The ruling validates a trial court judge’s decision that backed the Maricopa County Superior Court’s refusal to comply with a series of public records requests filed by the sheriff’s department in late 2007 and early 2008.

In December of 2007, MCSO Deputy Chief Paul Chagolla filed records requests under state law seeking all e-mails and notes sent to and from the court’s presiding judge, Barbara Rodriguez Mundell, and other high-level court officials and staff.

The requests, which sought all records generated between November and mid-December of 2007, also targeted the court’s highest adult probation administrator Barbara Broderick, court attorney Jessica Funkhouser and court administrator Marcus Reinkensmeyer.

The appellate court sided with court officials’ claims that complying with the public records requests would create an undue burden by forcing court employees, including judges to sort through more than 16,000 e-mails to remove employee records and judicial work products that are exempt from court rules on public disclosure.

Attorneys for the sheriff’s office argued that the court’s rules are incompatible with state public records laws that presume most government documents are subject to full public disclosure.

The claim was rejected by Judge Patricia Orozco, who in writing for the panel found the court rules covering public disclosure “mirrored” state laws that restrict some records from public examination in the interests of privacy, confidentiality and the best interests of the state.

“Under that rationale the rules restrict access to administrative records and bar requests that would impose undue financial burden, are duplicative or harassing or substantially interfere with court operations,” Orozco wrote.

The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office also argued unsuccessfully that Mundell violated the government checks-and-balances principles by assigning a subordinate, Judge Norman Davis, to review the office’s challenge of the court’s refusal to comply with the public records requests.

Both Reinkensmeyer and Mundell refused to comment on the court’s opinions, citing the possibility the sheriff’s office could appeal the decision to the Arizona Supreme Court.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio said he had not yet read the court’s opinion and therefore could not offer substantial comment. But, Arpaio, a frequent defendant in public records lawsuits, hinted he believed he was being treated under a double-standard.

“They rule against me sometimes when we don’t give information at an appropriate time and here we have waited over a year to get their records,” he said. “We’ll just have to look at it.”

Chagolla said the information he requested was “readily available” to Maricopa County Superior Court officials. He said documents considered exempt from public disclosure laws could be separated easily from the documents that the law requires to be turned over.

“This is a blanket denial, and at the end of the day it is the citizen who loses here because they don’t see the transparency here and the work of the court remains shrouded,” he said.

He further criticized the Court of Appeals opinion, saying the facts of the dispute were inaccurately presented and that he expects to appeal.

Chagolla would not disclose what specific information he is seeking from the court and said he felt no duty to comply with numerous appeals from court officials to narrow the scope of his requests.

The estimated 16,000 documents the requests would be expected to produce represent a “mere pittance” compared to the number of documents the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office has disclosed to media outlets, he said.

The Arizona Attorney General’s Office handled the defense of the Maricopa County Superior Court from the appeal by the sheriff’s office.

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