McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

Editorials

August 21, 2011

Justice rules in records debate

McALESTER —  

McAlester’s own state Supreme Court justice recently went against the majority on the high court, which consists of some of the sharpest legal minds in Oklahoma. We couldn’t be more proud.

The court had been asked to rule on a request by media that would require schools in the state to reveal the birthdates of employees. The media, represented by The Oklahoman and Tulsa World, argued the dates were essential in checking employee backgrounds. For instance, is John Smith, the convicted child molester born Jan. 1, 1956, the same John Smith who cleans the bathrooms at the local elementary school? Without the birthdates, the media argued, there was no way to know for certain.

Officials and unions representing the schools argued against the disclosure, alleging it was an invasion of privacy. In fact, The Advocate, a monthly publication distributed by the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, equated the potential release of employee birth dates to “exploitation.”

“The association followed through on this critical issue all the way to the Supreme Court because we believed state employees, who dedicate their lives to public service, should not have their private information released to the press or other individuals,” OPA Executive Director Sterling Zearley told The Advocate.

Obviously, we disagree. But more importantly, so did McAlester’s Chief Justice Steven Taylor. He, along with Justice Yvonne Kauger, dissented in the 7-2 ruling on June 28. In their dissent, the justices said the Legislature has already amended the Open Records Act three times since it went into effect in 1985, and could have added birth dates to the list of closed records, according to the Oklahoma Press Association’s Oklahoma Publisher.

The News-Capital has worked with Taylor for decades. We’ve covered jury trials and other court proceedings over which he presided as an associate district judge — and later as district judge — at the Pittsburg County Courthouse. He opened his office — indeed the courthouse — to us, giving us access to the law library, the courtroom and any public records in his office. Unless public access to a hearing was prohibited by law, he welcomed the public to sit in and watch. He frequently pointed out that the courthouse, after all, belongs to the public, not the employees who work there. 

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