Editorial: Supreme Court erodes access to open records

Published: Sunday, May. 5, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 6E
Last Modified: Monday, May. 6, 2013 - 10:27 am

Public records have cleansing power, as Nevada is discovering. The U.S. Supreme Court doesn't seem interested.

In a unanimous decision, the justices last week upheld a Virginia statute that says Virginia's open records law is for the benefit of Virginia citizens and that the state is not obligated to provide its records to residents of the other 49 states.

Eight states have included residents-only clauses in their public records act. Nevada is not among them. But recent experience shows the importance of being able to access another state's public documents.

On March 1, The Bee reported that Nevada bused James Flavy Coy Brown, a man with chronic mental illness, from the Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital in Las Vegas to Sacramento, even though he had no connection here.

Guessing that Nevada's dumping of Brown was not isolated, The Bee requested the number of bus tickets purchased for Rawson-Neal patients in a six-month period between July 2012 and January 2012. The answer came back: 82.

Seeking to place the issue in a broader context, The Bee sent a letter to the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services seeking "any and all receipts of purchases by Division of Mental Health and Development Services and its facilities of Greyhound bus tickets leaving Nevada" dating back five years.

A few weeks later, Nevada, a state with a strong public records law, delivered receipts for 1,500 Greyhound bus tickets, for which The Bee paid $247 in copy and labor costs.

Those public records showed a pattern by which Nevada bused mentally ill people to all corners of the nation, and that the practice increased in recent years as Gov. Brian Sandoval and legislators cut mental health care budgets.

Based on this California newspaper's reporting of another state's public records, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is investigating Nevada's main psychiatric hospital, and an independent accreditation agency is determining whether the hospital should retain its accreditation.

City attorneys in Sacramento, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and Alameda and Santa Clara county counsel are attempting to discover what became of individuals bused to their locales, and whether Nevada broke laws. Nevada's bus receipts show 19 people were bused to Sacramento, 36 to San Francisco, and 149 to Los Angeles.

Most important, Nevada, shamed by the light shone first by reporters from outside its borders, has halted the inhumane practice of busing mentally ill individuals for hours and days to as far away as Maine, New York and Miami, unescorted. Nevada officials now promise they will not bus individuals without chaperones.

None of this would have happened if Nevada could have denied records simply because the request came from outside the state. Of course, The Bee would have found ways around such a law. But that would have taken time and expense. In the interim, Nevada would have bused people out as it sought to relieve the "burden" of their care on its taxpayers, as its policy stated.

Neither of the individuals who sued Virginia were involved in news gathering. But the opinion by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. will complicate the ability of individuals to obtain and disseminate public information.

The decision ignores the reality that policies in one state can affect the rest of the nation, and that the union is interconnected.

All of that is playing out in Nevada, thanks in no small part to a public records law that the current U.S. Supreme Court doesn't seem to appreciate.

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