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Court ruling a victory for public access

Published: Saturday, June 7, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT

No one should have been surprised by a recent ruling of the Illinois Supreme Court that found the offices of state’s attorneys to be part of the executive branch of state government.

We cannot imagine it shocked even the judges of the appellate court that had decided, through some creative legal gymnastics, that state’s attorneys were a part of the judicial branch and, thus, not subject to transparency under the Freedom of Information Act.

Every school child who studies American government learns that the U.S. attorney general heads the Justice Department and, in his role in the executive branch of government, is a trusted member of the cabinet of the president, the nation’s chief executive. Likewise, federal prosecutors in the Justice Department are also appointed by the president.

So it was unlikely a lower court in the Illinois judiciary was going to reorganize American democracy.

The appellate court had acted on a 2010 case involving the Kendall County state’s attorney, who had disingenuously argued he was not subject to Illinois’ FOIA even though he had, some time earlier, appointed a staff member to handle requests for public records.

Lee County State’s Attorney Anna Sacco-Miller told us she had always assumed the case law might be reversed, but in any case, “I don’t think it will significantly impact anything we already do.”

Whiteside County State’s Attorney Trish Joyce, on the other hand, decried the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling because it “substantially impairs our ability to effectively prosecute cases.” She called on the Legislature to rewrite the public records law to exempt state’s attorneys.

We believe her fears are unfounded and that the law provides adequate protection to avoid jeopardizing pending criminal investigations.

Frankly, we have been disappointed at the eagerness with which local state’s attorneys latched onto the appellate decision to shut down access to their records – even for criminal cases that had been closed. The threat their stonewalling posed to open government was compounded by the dual role that state’s attorneys serve in Illinois – as both chief prosecutor and primary legal counsel to county government.

If legislators want to tackle a real problem, we suggest they look into the conflicts inherent in state’s attorneys being responsible for counseling county officials on public access laws while also having the responsibility to prosecute violators of those laws. That unfortunate conflict has seen local state’s attorneys – more than once – give their public clients bad advice on the Open Meetings Act. Sad, but true.

We hope they are equally enthusiastic about more transparency now that the Supreme Court has found that “There is no sense ... in which state’s attorneys can be regarded as part of the judiciary or the judicial branch.”

May the public be pleasantly surprised.

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