PHOENIX — An organization that is questioning the research behind climate change will get another chance to demand to see the emails of two University of Arizona scientists.
The state Court of Appeals has overturned the ruling of a trial judge who said the university need not disclose 1,700 emails and other records from Jonathan Overpeck and Malcolm Hughes. Pima County Superior Court Judge James Marner had said the university did not abuse its discretion in concluding that disclosing the documents would not be in the best interests of the state.
But appellate Judge Joseph Howard, writing for the unanimous court, said it’s legally irrelevant what university officials thought was appropriate to disclose.
Howard said everyone involved in the case acknowledges the emails are public records. And he said state law has a presumption that all public records are subject to disclosure, with certain exceptions.
What that means, Howard wrote, is that trial judges must actually examine the records to determine whether making them public really would harm “the best interests of the state’’ as the university is claiming.
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The ruling does not guarantee that the Energy & Environment Legal Institute, which has raised questions about climate change and the causes behind it, will get all of the documents. But in raising the bar for the university to shield them from disclosure, it increases the chances at least some of these will see the light of day.
And while the decision could be seen as a setback for the university, it underscores the breadth of the state’s public records laws and the fact that the burden of proof in these cases lies with the party trying to shield them from view.
According to court records, the university provided more than 1,600 pages of records and a log describing about 1,700 records it was withholding. The university said it was withholding emails “to protect either the confidentiality of information privacy of persons, or a concern about disclosure detrimental to the best interests of the state.’’
Howard, writing for the court, said Arizona law expresses an “open access policy toward public records’’ and exists “to allow citizens to be informed about what their government is up to.’’
What’s important, Howard said, is that while the agency with the records has the initial discretion to deny access, “under no circumstances should that determination be final,’’ calling that “inconsistent with all principles of democratic government.’’