UPDATED 06.26.12: See update at bottom of article.
© 2012 jbjd
Disagreeing with me on a point of legal interpretation doesn’t per se mean you don’t know what you are talking about. But when Assistant AG June Harden rejected Kelly Canon’s complaint that the Texas Democratic Party (“TDP”) had violated the Public Information Act (“PIA” or “the Act”) by refusing to produce certain election-related documents; explaining to Ms. Canon that, political parties are not covered by the Act, well, Ms. Harden had no idea what she was talking about.
For the past 12 years, Harden has been the Senior Managing Attorney for Public Outreach in the Open Records Division of the Office of the Attorney General of the State of Texas. Before joining the OAG, she served as Special Counsel to Senator Gregory Luna of Bexar County. Id. Ms. Harden received her undergraduate degree from Texas A&M University and her J.D. from Texas Tech University School of Law. Id. She has been working at the AG since December 1995; her current annual salary is $80,000. http://www.texastribune.org/library/data/government-employee-salaries/state-of-texas/june-b-harden/1114680/
Judging by her bona fides; by now, she should know her job in and out. But she doesn’t. And I can prove it. First, some background information, which has been covered in previous articles.
The legal standard for getting the name of the Presidential candidate from the major political party on the general election ballot in Texas is spelled out in §192.031 PARTY CANDIDATE’S ENTITLEMENT TO PLACE ON BALLOT. The first of four prongs to entitlement is, the person must be “federally qualified” for the job. Id. But no law specifically designates whose responsibility it is to determine either in the first instance, whether the candidate is federally qualified; or, at some point after the political party has electronically submitted the name of the candidate to the Secretary of State (“SoS”) and before she certifies the name to the ballot, whether anyone has previously determined s/he is federally qualified for the job. However, we know that the Secretary does not verify Constitutional eligibility; and so, Ms. Canon determined to find out on what documentary basis both the RPT (Republican Party of TX) and TDP had determined their 2012 Presidential candidates’ federal qualifications. The RPT returned their candidate applications which, like those applications designed by the Secretary for Independent and Write-in candidates, contained the Constitutionally qualified self-affirmation. The TDP returned the candidates’ unauthenticated applications. (See BALLOT ENTITLEMENT LAWS should DISQUALIFY PRESIDENT OBAMA in TEXAS.)
But that’s not what Canon asked for; so she filed a complaint with the AG charging the TDP had violated the PIA. Pending receipt of the actual opinion letter; Ms. Harden telephoned her response.
According to Harden, the TDP is not covered by the PIA. Why? Because, as she told Ms. Canon; under Title 5 of 552.003, Definitions, political parties are not identified as government entities. And, technically she’s right. That is, the TDP is not a government entity. But this fact alone does not end the analysis as to whether the documents requested are covered under the Act. For example, had she read section 552.002; she would have seen this.
Sec. 552.002. DEFINITION OF PUBLIC INFORMATION; MEDIA CONTAINING PUBLIC INFORMATION. (a) In this chapter, “public information” means information that is collected, assembled, or maintained under a law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business:
(1) by a governmental body; or
(2) for a governmental body and the governmental body owns the information or has a right of access to it.
This means, even granting that sec. 552.003 of the TX Statutes, Government Code, Title 5, Open Government; Ethics, does not explicitly define the TDP as a government entity; one cannot rightly infer that the documents held by the TDP which were the subject of Ms. Canon’s request and subsequent complaint to the AG for non-compliance; are not public documents under other provisions of the Act. Or that, under another legal scheme, either the party or the documents are not covered by the Act. And they are. For example, look at the Elections Code.
Sec. 191.003: NOTICE OF CANDIDATES TO SECRETARY OF STATE. The state chair of each political party holding a presidential primary election shall certify the name of each presidential candidate who qualifies for a place on the presidential primary election ballot and deliver the certification to the secretary of state not later than the 57th day before presidential primary election day.
Thus, in TX, the Presidential candidates representing the major political parties do not apply directly to the Secretary of State (“SoS”) to get their names on the ballot. Instead, they must submit their ballot applications to the chair of the party; and s/he must submit the names of these candidates to the SoS. In other words, under Sec. 552.002, the information “collected, assembled, or maintained” with respect to these applications which are made pursuant to Sec. 191.003, requiring the delivery of the certification of qualified candidates to the SoS; is public information.
But just in case the logic of coverage under the PIA is still unclear; there’s this.
Sec. 141.035. APPLICATION AS PUBLIC INFORMATION. An application for a place on the ballot, including an accompanying petition, is public information immediately on its filing.
Indeed; like they had done to several requestors in 2010; the TDP ignored Canon’s first request for documents in 2012, in which she had failed to specify the applicable public records laws.
No; she only received a response after she revised her letter and filed a second request for documents in which she specifically asserted the laws supporting the request.
And she knew if the TDP had any such documents related to the 2012 ballot; these documents would still be held by the TDP.
Sec. 141.036. PRESERVATION OF APPLICATION. The authority with whom an application for a place on the ballot is required to be filed shall preserve each application filed with the authority for two years after the date of the election for which the application is made.
However, the party failed to produce the specific documents she requested related to how it had ascertained the candidates’ federal qualification, which refusal had prompted her present complaint to the AG.
Presumably, before Ms. Harden issued her opinion; she researched past opinions issuing on this subject from the office of the AG. We looked; there are none. This means, this was a case of first impression. But this also means that, subsequent complaints as to the refusal of the parties to produce specific election-related information; will be rejected on the grounds of her opinion.
It would appear that AAG Harden repeated the mistakes others have made when interpreting the coverage of the PIA. That is, she was too narrowly focused on the definitions which ruled out political party chairs as ‘public officials,’ ignoring the fact the section of the law immediately preceding those definitions makes unambiguously clear that documents held by these party officers may still be classified as public records. Or the fact that other laws may define records as public, making them also subject to the PIA; and spell out that when party officers carry out traditional state functions associated with elections, covered by another section of the law; then, just like other public officials, they can still be ordered to hand over these public records, under an action in Mandamus initiated either by the aggrieved citizen or by the AG.
To say nothing of the fact that the opening provision of the PIA urges its provisions not to be narrowly construed so as to limit public access to records but, on the contrary; to be “liberally construed in favor of granting a request for information.” http://www.statutes.legis.state.tx.us/Docs/GV/htm/GV.552.htm
But as of now; the erroneous opinion stands. This means the TDP has the legal obligation to submit the name of a Presidential candidate to the ballot, which name the SoS, who presumes the candidates named by the parties are federally qualified for the job and thus entitled to appear on the ballot; must certify these names to the ballot. Sec. 192.033. But neither the SoS nor a private citizen has the right of access to the party documents which were the basis for the TDP’s eligibility determination. And the TDP knows this, having been copied on both the complaint and the opinion letter.
Recall that, in the past, the TDP refused to produce documentary evidence of its candidate applications until the requester cited applicable public records and election laws. Until we can reverse Ms. Harden’s patently erroneous legal interpretation of the scope of PIA jurisdiction; how likely do you suppose will be the TDP to voluntarily disclose such eligibility documentation?
And why would the citizens of TX allow to remain intact, a system of elections that presently permits a political party to maintain access to the ballot notwithstanding it cannot produce any documentary evidence to the public or the Secretary, that its candidates satisfy the threshold to entitlement, of being “federally qualified” for the job?
UPDATE 06.26.12: Well, well, well. AAG Harden’s written response arrived; and it’s even ‘better’ in black and white.
See, in addition to memorializing her illogical opinion that, the TDP is not covered under the PIA inasmuch as they are not identified as a “government entity” in the Definitions section of that law; she now preserves for the record her mistaken assertion that the only records covered are those held by entities explicitly defined as ‘government.’ This, of course, leaves out all of those “records” defined in the law as “collected, assembled, or maintained under a law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business … for a governmental body and the governmental body owns the information or has a right of access to it.” Id.
But there’s more. Ms. Canon pointed out to Ms. Harden over the phone; she had filed a PIA request with the SoS seeking all documents the TDP had submitted to that office with respect to the federal qualification of the Presidential candidates whose names they provided to appear on the ballot. The SoS complied with this request. That is, they returned a printout of the electronic spreadsheet that had been submitted by the party, containing the candidates’ names. Because that’s all they had gotten from the party. But apparently, Harden somehow got the idea that, Canon was perhaps complaining, the SoS had received from the party, documents of federal qualification; but had refused to forward to her that documentation! Now, writing the obvious, Harden advised that the SoS is a government entity under the PIA, and suggested Canon could file a PIA complaint against them!
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