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Mixed reactions from prosecutors on records ruling

State’s attorneys now subject to Freedom of Information Act

Published: Thursday, May 29, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, May 29, 2014 9:17 a.m. CDT
(From left) Whiteside County State's Attorney Trish Joyce, Lee County State's Attorney Anna Sacco-Miller, and Ogle County State's Attorney Mike Rock.

STERLING – A recent ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court changes the way state’s attorney offices are viewed through the lens of the state’s public records law.

Sauk Valley area state’s attorneys had mixed reactions to the ruling, one seeing it as possibly impacting prosecutions, and another as something that was always a possibility.

In a unanimous ruling last week, the state’s highest court declared state’s attorneys are subject to the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, which is intended to improve government transparency.

County prosecutors will now have to release public records under the FOIA.

Whiteside County State’s Attorney Trish Joyce said she didn’t agree with the court’s decision.

“Obviously, I’m not happy about it, and I think it substantially impairs our ability to effectively prosecute cases,” she said. “And I’m hoping the Legislature will reconsider and include us in the exempt entities.”

Joyce’s issue with the ruling wasn’t that she didn’t want her office to be transparent, she said.

“Oftentimes, people aren’t aware of certain prosecutions that are dependent on confidentiality that we would be afforded, were it not for FOIA,” Joyce said last week. “And we certainly don’t want to compromise our prosecutions.”

Lee County State’s Attorney Anna Sacco-Miller wasn’t concerned that complying with public records laws would hinder her office and wasn’t necessarily surprised by the ruling.

“I always operated under the assumption that the law could change,” she wrote in an email Wednesday. “I don’t think it will significantly impact anything we already do.”

Ogle County State’s Attorney Mike Rock declined to comment on the ruling. He said he had not fully read it and reviewed possible exemptions for which his office would be eligible.

The Supreme Court acted on a case that started in 2010 when a reporter asked for emails between employees in the Kendall County State’s Attorney’s office. The office denied the request, claiming it was part of the judicial branch of government, which is exempt from the records law.

State’s attorneys prosecute crime but also act as lawyers for county boards, advising officials on zoning issues, contracts and more.

In reversing an appeallate court ruling, the Supreme Court found the theory that a state’s attorney is part of the judicial branch was “untenable,” while conceding that the exemption does extend beyond the actual courts to, for example, court-affiliated entities such as clerks of the courts.

“There is no sense, however, in which state’s attorneys can be regarded as part of the judiciary or the judicial branch,” the court wrote in its decision.

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