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 Article of Interest - FOIA

TOP COURT: Governments Must Prove FOI Materials Exempt

Gongwer News Service, July 25, 2002


Public bodies, not the public, have the burden of showing that materials requested under the Freedom of Information Act are exempt from disclosure, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday.  And the court further clarified that materials are “exemptible,” not automatically exempt if a requester can show a valid public reason to disclose the information.


Justice Stephen Markman, joined by five of his colleagues, rejected the arguments of Lansing that a person or entity requesting documents has the burden to prove the materials are not exempt.  Joining Mr. Markman was Chief Justice Maura Corrigan, and Justices Michael Cavanagh, Marilyn Kelly, Clifford Taylor and Robert Young Jr. 


Justice Elizabeth Weaver wrote a separate concurrence, stating more directly that materials that may be exemptible do not have a presumption of exemption.


The documents in dispute in the case had already been given to the Lansing State Journal before the court rendered its decision, but Mr. Markman said in his decision that the court was using the decision to clarify the standards for courts to review appeals in such situations.


The case began when the newspaper requested copies of internal reviews conducted by the Lansing Police Department during 1997.  The city refused and the documents were exempt under personnel matters.  The newspaper appealed and the Ingham Circuit Court ruled that the documents had to be released.  The city and the local lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police filed an emergency appeal in the matter, and initially the Court of Appeals issued a stay.  But then the court vacated the stay and the city turned over the documents.  It then found for the newspaper.


The Supreme Court ruled the 1976 FOIA “plainly states that the burden of proof is on the public body to demonstrate why it is entitled to protect a record from disclosure.”


And while it may exempt some documents, even that provision can be overturned if can be demonstrated that the public’s interest in disclosure overrides the need to keep the materials from public scrutiny, the court ruled.


“However, we emphasized that these records are merely exemptible and not exempt, and that exemption is not automatic,” the court said, although it said when reviewing an appeal a court “should remain cognizant of the special consideration that the Legislature has accorded an exemptible class of records.”


And the court said if a request for documents is broad, then the trial court can ask the public body for assistance in categorizing the sought-after records.


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