The Missouri Supreme Court will hear remote oral arguments on Wednesday in Jefferson City in a key Sunshine law dispute between GOP Governor Mike Parson’s office and a former Democratic candidate for attorney general.
The case is “Elad Gross vs. Governor Parson.” While there are several arguments in this case, the biggest one is whether public governmental bodies such as the governor’s office can charge costs for searching for and researching public records.
This case began in October 2018 when Elad Gross, who later ran for attorney general in 2020, sent a Sunshine request to the governor’s office regarding campaign contributions. The governor’s office said the request found more than 13,600 documents and would cost about $3,600 to produce and take up to 120 business days to provide.
Gross later amended his request and received about 60 pages, some of which were redacted.
Mr. Gross alleges that Governor Parson’s office charged excessive fees. However, then-Cole County Circuit Judge Patricia M. Joyce dismissed Gross’ case. Judge Joyce, a Democrat, has since retired.
Gross is appealing to the Missouri Supreme Court, which will hear the case Wednesday morning at 9. Counselor Gross wants the Missouri Supreme Court to rule that the governor’s office violated the state Sunshine law.
Mr. Gross has filed a 48-page brief with the Missouri Supreme Court, saying the governor’s office abused its discretion by acting arbitrarily and in not waiving or reducing fees with his first Sunshine request.
Gross also questions why he was being charged $40 per hour when state law calls for record production “using employees of the body that result in the lowest amount of charges for search, research and duplication time,” according to his brief.
Governor Parson’s office is being represented by Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office. Deputy Attorney General Jeremiah Morgan has filed a 37-page brief with the Missouri Supreme Court.
Deputy Attorney General Morgan’s main argument involves the plain language of the Sunshine Law, saying it authorizes research time to be charged at the actual cost and does not require a waiver of those costs. Mr. Morgan also says closed and privileged material can be redacted from responsive documents.
Morgan also addresses Gross’ complaint about the $40 rate, saying the $40 per hour rate is the hourly rate of the lowest-paid attorney on the Governor’s staff. Morgan also says that research time is a major part of an attorney’s work.
“The fundamental question in this case is whether a public governmental body, such as the Governor’s office, can charge its actual costs for searching, researching, or duplicating public records, even if some or all of the research is done by an attorney that is an employee of the public governmental body. The answer is, unquestionably, yes,” Deputy Attorney General Morgan writes, in his brief.
Morgan says the governor’s office followed the Sunshine Law’s plain language, and he’s asking the Missouri Supreme Court to affirm Judge Joyce’s ruling.
This case is also attracting major interest from other groups, who have filed what are known as amici briefs. That means friends of the court.
Attorneys Bernard Rhodes and Brad Johnson represent the “Kansas City Star”, and attorneys Joseph Martineau and Lewis Rice represent the “St. Louis Post-Dispatch.” They’ve filed an amici brief.
“The Sunshine Law does not allow public governmental bodies to charge for time attorneys spend reviewing public records because no provision in the Sunshine Law authorizes such charges,” the newspaper attorneys write, in their 31-page brief.
The Missouri Press Association and the “Missouri Sunshine Coalition” have also submitted amici briefs.
The Missouri Municipal League, which represents about 650 municipalities across the state, has also filed an amici brief.
COVID will impact Wednesday’s oral arguments. Counselor Gross and Deputy Attorney General Morgan will argue their cases remotely, via zoom. Chief Justice George Draper will be the only Missouri Supreme Court judge in the Jefferson City courtroom. The other six judges will participate remotely.
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