Tuesday, March 18 — Welcome to Michigan's Freedom of Information Week. It's a great week to let folks know about how accountable and responsible their governments are at the state, county and local level.
It's also the first official birthday of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government, or MiCOG, a tax-exempt nonprofit group that keeps a sharp eye on the accountability, transparency and responsibility of public officials, governments, public universities and the courts.
Back when the state’s freedom of information and open meetings laws went into effect in 1977, the Michigan Supreme Court exempted all Michigan courts from being covered by those laws.
In subsequent decisions, the court has exempted all 15 public university boards from the Open Meetings Act when it comes to presidential searches. The universities say that decision also applies to their retreats, pre-meetings and other discussions that occur outside of the public meetings mandated by the state constitution. That’s extremely relevant now as a presidential search was just completed for the University of Michigan, and as searches are underway at Oakland University and Saginaw Valley State University. Public universities are annually given hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, yet because of the court’s ruling, information about applicants who want to become president can remain secret until a new president is selected.
Court decisions have consistently expanded the interpretations of exemptions despite the public policy language of the Freedom of Information Act itself. Last year, the Michigan Supreme Court through the State Court Administrative Office helped draft legislation that exempts disclosure of any information on:
- Mental health courts (even data on the number of cases these courts handle, the success, failures and rates of recidivism on individuals involved)
- Hidden criminal juvenile records (including violent felonies and keeping potential employers from finding out about sex offenders)
Most recently, the Michigan Supreme Court through the SCAO has approved phasing in mandatory electronic filing of court documents without any mention of public access to the records and what that access should cost.
The so-called e-filing legislation is, at least at this point, an "unfunded mandate" being handed down to the local courts that requires them to keep all court documents in electronic form rather than on paper. According to some of the court clerks that MiCOG surveyed last year, "unfunded mandates" from the state are a serious financial problem for local governments.
Nationally and in Michigan, the courts have historically operated with a great deal of transparency. But this is changing fast in Michigan despite the state law mandate that “sittings of every court within this state shall be public” except in certain cases.
The people have a right to full access to their courts. As we head into Sunshine Week, MiCOG urges the courts to maintain an attitude of public accountability to engender confidence and belief in the fairness of the legal system. It’s what’s best for the courts, and for Michigan citizens.
Jane Briggs-Bunting is the president of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government. She is a veteran reporter, media attorney and former director of the Michigan State University School of Journalism and Oakland University journalism program.