(The Center Square) – Attorney David Roland left the Missouri Court of Appeals in the Western District confident his Sunshine Law case against the Cole County prosecuting attorney was strong.
“There’s always an element of uncertainty when you walk out of an appellate argument, but I felt like the argument went really well for us,” Roland said in an interview with The Center Square. “I was cautiously optimistic that we were going to get a good decision. And honestly, the decision is a little bit better than I would have expected.”
In the latest ruling in an eight-year litigation process, the court on Tuesday again ordered the prosecutor must search for and produce records requested. The court also found if a government entity is going to require the citizen pay the cost of locating and producing public records, it must clearly make that stipulation early in the process – perhaps as early as the government’s initial reply to the citizen’s request.
“I think this should be a strong enough signal to the prosecuting attorney that they should quit fooling around,” Roland said. “They should finally do the search and produce the records that they were ordered to do years and years ago.”
Litigation started in 2015 as Aaron Malin and Show-Me Cannabis wanted information on how multi-jurisdictional drug task forces were functioning.
“He met with huge opposition,” Roland said. “About half of the task force agencies refused to produce anything at all and said they were not subject to the Sunshine Law.”
In 2019, the Missouri Court of Appeals ruled in Malin’s favor and ordered the prosecutor to search for and provide the requested records. Four years later, the prosecutor said it hadn’t searched 6,000 to 8,000 cases of records and argued it was required only to do so if Malin paid them to comply with the court order.
The appeals court ruled the prosecutor waived the right to charge for the records by not bringing it up in earlier litigation.
“The Prosecutor is therefore left with the plain and unambiguous language of the original judgment, which orders, unconditionally, that it search for and produce all open records responsive to Malin’s first request,” Judge W. Douglas Thomson wrote in a 30-page opinion.
As Missouri marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Sunshine Law, Roland said he witnesses continued resistance to its principles.
“We still have government officials pushing back, either outright or with a loose interpretation of what their responsibilities are under the Sunshine Law,” Roland said. “And it’s difficult to actually punish the people responsible for violations.”
Roland said the General Assembly probably won’t strengthen the Sunshine Law and it might take an initiative petition for voters to demand more and better government transparency.
“A lot of government officials don’t like the idea of accountability,” Roland said. “If we don’t hold their feet to the fire, the people will not be able to fulfill the role they have in a self-governing society.”