Sunday, March 13, 2005

Cornyn: FOIA should mimic Texas open records law

U.S. Senators John Cornyn, R-Texas and Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, have proposed much needed reforms to the federal Freedom of Information Act according to this Cox News article, which includes a good little history of how the Sharpstown bank scandal spawned Texas' open records laws in 1973.

Cornyn promised when he first ran to alter the FOIA to make it operate more along the lines of Texas' law, which includes pro-requestor enforcement provisions not found in most other states. FOIAs can take years to fulfill, and if the government turns you down, you have no recourse. Texas has strict time requirements government agencies must abide by. That appears to be the main problem the good senators are trying to fix, according to
this piece in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which had another story with examples of how their reporters use open records laws..

There are other parts of Texas' law, though, that Cornyn would do well to emulate. Federal agencies can exempt a document from review merely by labeling it secret. In Texas, documents are public unless closed by statute, whether or not the word "Secret" or "Confidential" is stamped on the file. In 1995,
the Star-Telegram reports, the feds labeled 3.6 million items secret. Now, they label more than 14 million different items secret every year, an almost 400% increase. From the press coverage, it doesn't appear Cornyn's bill would address that problem. It's a big 'un, though

For a long time, Texas' law was among the strongest in the country, but in recent years the Texas Legislature has enacted exemption after exemption that have degraded the law, until a
2002 study ranked Texas' open records statute 18th strongest among the states.

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