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EDITORIAL

There's no reason to keep cause of death a secret

Monday, October 21, 2013 - 8:33 am

Hooray for attorney general joining effort to open the records.

Despite commendable efforts in recent years to make Indiana government meetings and records more open to the public, Hoosier officials can sometimes be reluctant to enforce the rules enthusiastically. Some of them seem to value efficiency more than transparency – it is, after all, easier to get things done without that pesky public nosing around.

We’re happy to see that Indiana Attorney General Zoeller is not one of those anti-public officials, at least when it comes to cause-of-death information. His office has asked the Indiana Supreme Court to hear the appeal of a judge’s ruling that such information is not public record and, furthermore, to rule that local death certificates should be available to the public. Indiana Public Access Counselor Joseph Hoage had already ruled the certificates public record, but that is merely a nonbinding opinion.

We’d urge Zoeller to go even further by petitioning the Indiana General Assembly to fix the laws that allowed the judge to make the ruling in the first place. The problem is that Indiana has two contradictory laws on death records.

One state law, cited by the Evansville Courier & Press in its lawsuit against the Vanderburgh County Health Department, requires health departments to keep records of the death certificates filed by petitions and make them available to the public.

But another state law seems to limit access to cause-of-death records to those who can prove they have a direct interest in the case, such as a spouse or immediate relative who may need them for legal purposes.

The former law was relied on by Hoage in siding with the newspaper and the public’s right to know. The latter was used by Circuit Court Judge Carl Heldt, who ruled for the county’s right to withhold the information. The judge acknowledged the contradictory laws, but said in such cases, “the more specific” law must be followed. The Indiana Court of Appeals then upheld Heldt’s ruling, which paves the way for Supreme Court consideration.

The General Assembly should consider both laws and replace them with a third law making it plain that death records – like most other records kept on behalf of citizens and paid for by them – must be available to the public.

One reason is simple clarity. When there are contradictory laws on the books, the resulting incoherence creates confusion among members of the public and can breed a cynical distrust of the legal system. But the stronger reason is to reconfirm the state’s commitment to operate an open government for an informed citizenry.