The Mississippi Supreme Court on Thursday ruled in the Sun Herald’s favor in a long-running battle between the media company and state officials over records from the Department of Marine Resources.
The court found that Chancery Judge Jennifer Schloegel correctly ruled the records are public records created during the course of DMR business, not investigative records exempt from the state’s Public Records Act as state officials claimed. The court sent the case back to Schloegel to enforce her original order.
The officials have 14 days to ask for a rehearing.
Henry Laird, attorney for the Sun Herald, said the ruling should help media companies across the state.
“That holding is very helpful to journalists,” he said. “Also, the holding is helpful in that you can’t convert records to criminal records after a subpoena.
“This decision, again, narrowly construed an exemption to the Mississippi Public Records Act and says that these are public records. If a state agency or city government has records that are turned over to investigate a crime, they’re not criminal investigative records.”
Investigative records are exempt from disclosure.
The Supreme Court also ordered the Office of the State Auditor to pay the Sun Herald’s legal fees of about $37,000.
The state Court of Appeals last year reversed Schloegel’s 2013 decision that the records were public records and her decision to hold state Auditor Stacey Pickering, his investigators and the DMR in contempt for failing to turn over the records as she ordered.
The Sun Herald then appealed that decision to the high court. The Supreme Court ruled that only Deputy State Auditor David Huggins was in contempt and ordered him to pay a $100 fine.
The Sun Herald sought the records in 2012 as part of a months-long investigation into the DMR.
Pickering’s office then subpoenaed the records and obtained a circuit court ruling that said the subpoena prevented DMR from handing the records over.
The Sun Herald then filed suit. During a hearing on that suit, Schloegel ordered the records be brought to her courtroom and ruled they were not investigative records. She ordered that the records be brought to court so the Sun Herald could have copies.
A federal grand jury then issued its own subpoena and the Auditor’s Office took the records to Jackson rather than bring them to court. The next day, federal and state grand juries issued indictments in the case.
A few days later, Schloegel found Huggins, Auditor Stacey Pickering, Attorney General Jim Hood, auditor’s Investigator Chris Lott, Special Assistant Attorney General Melissa Patterson, Special Assistant Attorney General Joseph Runnels, Special Assistant Attorney General Sandra Chesnut and Special Assistant Attorney General Harold Pizzetta in contempt and ordered them to pay $100 each.
The Supreme Court ruled only Huggins was in contempt. It also said DMR ‘acted in good faith’ in its dealings with the Sun Herald.
“We disagree with the Chancery Court’s finding that DMR violated the Mississippi Public Records Act,” the decision written by Associate Justice Dawn Beam. “The record illustrates … that DMR acted in good faith to resolve the public records request.”
The Court also found that the DMR is not liable for attorney’s fees, costs and expenses.
“I am pleased with the Court’s ruling,” said Jamie Miller, executive director of MDMR. “It confirms our handling of the requested public records was done appropriately and within the law.”
Former DMR Executive Director Bill Walker, Chief of Staff Joe Ziegler; DMR official Tina Shumate; D’Iberville City Manager Michael Janus and Walker’s son, Scott Walker, eventually were convicted of crimes at the DMR and city of D’Iberville.
The Walkers, Shumate and Janus received prison terms. All have since been released.