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Indiana AG: Public should have access to death certificates

Friday, October 18, 2013 - 12:01 am

The Indiana Attorney General's Office has asked the Indiana Supreme Court to hear the appeal of a judge's ruling that cause of death information is not public record.

“In short, our office advocates that local death certificates are a public record that the public should be able to obtain,” said Bryan Corbin, a spokesman for the attorney general.

The legal brief filed by the Attorney General's Office argues that the court decision goes against state policy on public records.

“The Access to Public Records Act requires courts to liberally construe its provisions to fully implement the State's policy for open access to public records,” it said.

Also joining in petitioning the high court to hear the case and settle the issue are Indiana Coalition for Open Government and the Hoosier State Press Association, said Pat Shoulders, attorney for the newspaper. All three have filed formal “friend of the court” petitions asking the Indiana Supreme Court to consider the case brought by the Evansville Courier & Press.

“The Courier & Press is encouraged by the fact that the State of Indiana, through its Attorney General, the official charged with interpreting and enforcing state law, has filed a brief in support of the petition to transfer,” Shoulders said.

He noted Indiana Public Access Counselor Joseph Hoage ruled death certificates are public records.

In the lawsuit, originally filed in Vanderburgh Circuit Court in 2012, the newspaper and Pike County resident Rita Ward argued that death records are governed by conflicting state laws.

The lawsuit was filed after the county health department denied access to cause of death information in separate requests. The newspaper published causes of death information from 2002 until May 2012, when the health department stopped including death causes in the information it provides to the newspaper.

At issue is whether Vanderburgh County Senior Judge Carl Heldt erred in his Jan. 28 ruling that the Vanderburgh County Health Department did not violate the state's Access to Public Records Act when it stopped providing causes of death to the newspaper.

The Court of Appeals of Indiana upheld the decision in August. The panel of three appeals judges ruled that state law says death certificates are public records but can be disclosed “only if” certain circumstances are present, such as whether the person seeking them has a direct interest in the death and whether it is needed to determine issues of property rights.

In his original decision, Heldt wrote that the law cited by the county is more specific than the law cited by the Courier & Press and the Indiana Public Access Counselor, who earlier supported of access to the information.

The appeal argued that Heldt's ruling contradicted Hoage's opinion, in which he said that a portion of a 2011 law that limits cause of death information to people with a direct interest applied to the state's death registration system.

Hoage's opinion was that another Indiana law still requires local health departments to keep records of the death certificates filed by doctors and make them available to the public.

The newspaper and Ward argued state law still requires the county to keep death certificates and make them available as a public record.