Voter ID suit could open lawmaker emails to public for first time

Posted March 28, 2014

— A lawsuit challenging a sweeping elections law that the General Assembly passed last year could force open legislative emails to public inspection for the first time.

North Carolina's public records law gives people the right to see emails and letters by government officials, but state lawmakers have claimed for years that they're exempt from that law.

Groups that oppose the law, including the state chapter of the NAACP, the League of Women Voters of North Carolina and the American Civil Liberties Union, contend that lawmakers are trying to make voting more difficult, especially for minority voters.

"There are a number of measures – a week of cuts to early voting, the elimination of same-day registration – that the public is not in favor of, was not calling for," said Chris Brook, state legal director for the ACLU. "Why then did the legislature decide to go down this route and adopt these very draconian changes?"

The plaintiffs tried to subpoena lawmakers' emails to determine their motives, but the lawmakers refused, arguing that legislative privilege makes their emails confidential.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Joi Elizabeth Peake ruled Thursday that legislative immunity must be evaluated "under a flexible approach" that balances the public's right to know and the legislative process.

"The Court concludes that, while the judicially-created doctrine of 'legislative immunity' provides individual legislators with absolute immunity from liability for their legislative acts, that immunity does not preclude all discovery in the context of this case," Peake wrote.

The judge also ruled that additional categories of documents may be released after further hearings in the coming weeks.

Mike Tadych, who represents WRAL and other media organizations, said he's not aware of a previous ruling on the issue in North Carolina.

"Legislators' email communications with third parties are public records under the law," Tadych said. "Prior to that, there had been some suggestion by both the executive branch and the legislative branch in North Carolina that there was an absolute privilege, that the public records law didn't apply."

A spokeswoman for the state Attorney General's Office, which is defending the lawmakers against the subpoena, said state lawyers are reviewing the ruling and haven't decided on a possible appeal.

Lawmakers in most states have some immunity – North Carolina offers more than most – but if Peake's ruling stands, voters could soon know a lot more about how outside groups influence laws.

"North Carolinians should be able to see the deliberations that their legislators go through when they're considering bills. They should be able to see what legislators were relying upon," Brook said.


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  • Justin Case Mar 28, 2014
    user avatar

    If this was the NATIONAL legislature that was dealing with INTERNATIONAL relations, then the general public might be excluded from some discourse. But this is STATE business and only personal vocal communications can be assumed 'private' or 'privileged'. Email is a tool and what our state law makers type is PUBLIC. Period. Open it up!

  • snapjack Mar 28, 2014

    Good, let's see this dirty business come out into the open. Not that it will change any of the closed minded neocons around here

  • Robin Dean Mar 29, 2014
    user avatar

    All communications by those elected at all levels of government need to be available to the public and the press at all times. They should be published immediately on their websites. There should be no "privilege" as these are OUR employees and we are entitled to know what they say, do and think when it comes to governing. Only upon a showing that grave harm would come to some innocent person by the disclosure of the information should their be any restraints. Every email, phone call, minutes of meetings, written correspondence, notes taken all need to be made public within hours of the communication taking place. As to criminal investigations, there needs to be some restrictions but these apply only to the police, law enforcement, prosecutors and the courts, not any legislators or elected officials.

  • Sally Bethune Mar 29, 2014
    user avatar

    LOVE the idea. Employees for private institutions can have their computers taken to see what activity has been viewed or what emails have said because the computers are property of the institution. I think it exceedingly reasonable and smart that "LAW MAKERS" computers should be available to the public to view.

  • jacamoe Mar 29, 2014

    Feathers sure seem to ruffle when the tables are turning the other way. What's the difference in wanting ALL emails from the IRS SCANDAL of Lois Learner. I'll tell you, the political party that wants them. Double standard in play.

  • Greg Rustin Mar 29, 2014
    user avatar

    We know the reason. Suppress the vote.

  • casadelrichman Mar 31, 2014

    Reform is surly needed when anyone can walk to a voting place, give only a name and address, and be allowed to vote. That said, no attempt to push undo pressure should be tolerated.

  • lavenderdejectedmoon Mar 31, 2014

    Can't wait for these emails to go public.

  • Bill Mooney Mar 31, 2014
    user avatar

    "Reform is surly needed when anyone can walk to a voting place, give only a name and address, and be allowed to vote."

    Voter ID is just one page of the 57 pages of new rules that suppress voting. Greater and broader voter turnout isn't in the interest of the GOP, otherwise we wouldn't see these laws. I look forward to seeing the lawmaker emails. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

  • IBnormal Mar 31, 2014

    "Legislators' email communications with third parties are public records under the law," Mike Tadych of WRAL

    So, if I sent my state legislator an email it will be made public? Along with my name, email address, and, any other private or semi-private info that is in the email?

    Does the Judicial Branch have to show their emails, too? I'd like to know how Judge Peake reached her conclusion.