The Ruth Lilly Law Library is hosting a display on Sunshine Week. This is an annual event sponsored by the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) and the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press promoting open government and access to public information. With the advent of the internet many users assume all or most government information is freely available and therefore there is no need to pursue sunshine government efforts. This is an incorrect assumption. There is still work to be done to assure public access to government documents.
The law library provides access to both subscription legal publications and free government internet sources. Library users depend on having access to information and laws from all branches of the government. We librarians make every effort to provide access to the government information and documents needed by our users. Each branch of the government has its own information challenges.
Agencies generate huge amounts of information. However agencies are selective in what they make public. Fortunately, several laws concerning access to agency information exist, the most prominent of these acts is the Freedom of Information Act (5 U.S.C. § 552). The good news is that agencies are required to respond promptly (20 days) to all requests. The bad news is that the response can take the form of an acknowledgement with a future promise to review the request. Sensitive information can be refused or redacted. (Though once I received President Johnson’s tax return form and it still had his social security number showing. He was long deceased, but I was still surprised.) Alternatively, I have received FOIA requested documents from the Health and Human Services administration where only a few words per page were still showing rendering them useless.
Indiana provides online access to the Indiana Administrative Code back to 2003 and the Indiana Register back to 2001. These resources provide basic promulgation information. Additional information is available from Indiana executive agencies upon request. Ind. Code § 5-14-3-1 to 10.
Decisions from the federal courts are increasingly being posted on the internet. The federal judiciary offers pay access to court filings through the PACER system. PACER’s most significant limitations include a difficult search interface and variable years of coverage depending on the court.
The current decisions of the appellate level courts and above are generally available on the internet. Indiana is making strides toward providing online access to state court filings. Retrospective searching of court filings still requires paid subscriptions to private legal content vendors like Westlaw and Lexis. Clerks’ offices are still the primary source for older court filings. For those that want the in person court experience Indiana law provides public access to criminal proceedings Ind. Code § 5-14-2-1 to 8
Congress creates a wide array of documents during the passage of laws. Congress.gov provides access to a huge number of the documents from recent Congressional sessions. Again, this is still not comprehensive and there is no mechanism to obtain these documents. The FOIA law mentioned above does not cover Congressional activities which is unfortunate. I was disappointed while researching the activities of the Senate and how it treated teenagers serving as Pages. Multiple requests for basic information were ignored. Another unfortunate situation is the lack of no-cost access to legislature requested reports from Congressional Research Service (CRS). The CRS access problem may be improving in the near future, check out our previous blog Free the CRS Reports!.
The focus of the Indiana Legislative Services Agency seems to be on the current general assembly. Archival retention of past laws and documents generated during the passage of laws is extremely minimal. Our law library has a strong emphasis on collecting and retaining Indiana’s legislative information. The process of legislation and determination of laws is open as Indiana has an Open Door Law Ind. Code § 5-14-1.5-1 to 8 outlining requirements for public groups to make their meetings available.
Image credit: Mary J. Earle