COLUMBUS, Ohio — After more than 18 months of litigation, the Supreme Court of Ohio announced on Thursday that the Guardian has won a lawsuit against the Chillicothe Police Department over public records.
In a 5-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that certain information documented by law enforcement officers, including observations of officers responding to an incident and initial witness statements, are public records and must be revealed when requested, reported Dan Trevas of Ohio Court News — a publication that reports on the Supreme Court of Ohio.
In a dispute between the Chillicothe Police Department and the editor of the Scioto Valley Guardian, the Court clarified the public records act definition of “specific investigatory work product,” a category of records that are exempt from disclosure as public records. In a per curiam opinion, the Court ruled the department improperly delayed the release of police incident reports and must pay the publication $1,800 and court costs, Trevas reported.
The Guardian was represented by Emmett Robinson of the Robinson Law Firm in Cleveland. Counselor Robinson is an Ohio native who attended nearby Cedarville University and graduated from Harvard Law School. Robinson — who has appeared as a winner on the popular television quiz show Jeopardy! — said that the decision announced on Thursday was “major” for transparency.
“The decision was a big win for press freedom and government accountability advocates,” Robinson said. “As the concurrence recognized, this was the first major clarification of this area of law by the Supreme Court in 30 years. I’m thankful Derek Myers and the Guardian had the resolve to stick to their guns on this case.”
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Michael P. Donnelly, Melody Stewart, and Jennifer Brunner joined the majority opinion. Justice Patrick F. Fischer concurred in the Court’s judgment regarding the release of records, but dissented in the awarding of damages and court costs to the Guardian.
Justice Sharon Kennedy, who is running for chief justice as a Republican, agreed that Chillicothe police should have handed over the records, but she wrote that the majority needlessly complicated a standard settled almost 30 years ago. Brunner, who is a Democrat also running for the top job, sided with the majority, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported. Justice R. Patrick DeWine joined Kennedy’s opinion.
In 2018, now-police chief Ron Meyers inadvertently sent an email to the police department’s media distribution list that was intended for internal police use only. In the email, he outlined to officers how to conceal information in police reports from the news media. Now, with the Court’s ruling, that email was proven to be illegal.