The Ohio Supreme Court vigorously questioned lawyers on both sides Tuesday in a legal dispute over the state’s decision to withhold records documenting threats against Republican Gov. John Kasich from a political blogger.
The state Public Safety Department cited security in denying a 2012 public-records request by the Democratic-leaning blog Plunderbund, which sought investigation files on any threats to Kasich or his staff.
Shortly before the request, Kasich’s office cited a large number of threats against the governor as a basis for declining to release daily schedules to the state Democratic Party. The blog wanted to find out the nature of the threats. Large labor protests had been staged against Kasich in 2011 during a battle over bargaining limits for public-employee unions that ended in a new state law being overturned.
Plunderbund’s attorney, Victoria Ullmann, argued Tuesday that the state denied the blog the records based on an overly broad interpretation of the term “security.”
“We are not asking at all for security protocols. We don’t want that; we’re not interested in that,” Ullman told justices. She said the department continued to deny access to threat records after Plunderbund narrowed its request to only closed files, then to documents describing the threats.
Ullmann asserts Ohio’s exemption of security records from public release stemmed from a section of the federal Patriot Act intended to protect buildings after the World Trade Center attacks, not people.
Of a reference in the law describing the security records as “a public office,” she said, “I don’t know of a single place in the Revised Code where a person is called an office. That’s a building.”
Several justices expressed skepticism.
“If you’re talking about attacking ‘a public office,’ you’re talking about attacking the officeholder and all of the employees within that public office,” said Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a former prosecutor and state public safety director.
But Justice Paul Pfeifer said an attitude that “we can’t tell you anything about anything” leaves state lawmakers in the dark as they craft security budgets for the state.
The state’s attorney, William Cole, said Ohio public-records law makes clear the government can shield the records from public view for Kasich’s protection — and that means the whole investigative file, including the threat itself.
“All threat information is used by the department in protecting the safety and security of the (public) office,” he said. “That’s all that’s required to trigger the security-records statute.”
Justice William O’Neill quizzed Cole on the state’s blanket denial of the records, saying he was having trouble understanding how the threat itself isn’t a public record.
“Isn’t that what they’re really asking for? They want to know who threatened the governor,” O’Neill said.
Cole said “the entire record is out,” as state law is written.
Justice Terrence O’Donnell asked why Plunderbund’s narrowed request seeking only closed files wouldn’t have been honored.
Cole replied, “If you give it to Plunderbund, it’s in the public domain. Particularly with a media blog like that, it’s accessible to millions — including the bad guys, including the terrorists. He said ”even seemingly innocuous information” can be used to develop attack plans and countermeasures.
Pfeifer advised Cole to avoid terrorist references during his arguments. He said scant information has caused many to overblow the extent of any threats against Kasich.
“Maybe there isn’t anything,” Pfeifer said. “Everybody’s left in the dark, so the conspiracy theorists run away with it all.”