The Missouri Supreme Court will decide whether public governmental bodies can charge fees for searching for and researching public records. It’s the key question in a major case that was heard Wednesday morning by the Supreme Court.

Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice George Draper III takes notes in Jefferson City during remote oral arguments on October 6, 2020 (file photo courtesy of Missouri Supreme Court communications counsel Beth Riggert)

The court heard remote oral arguments in a Sunshine Law dispute between GOP Governor Mike Parson’s office and former Democratic attorney general candidate Elad Gross. There is no timeframe on when the court will issue a decision.

The case started in October 2018 when Counselor 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 13,000 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.

Gross contends the governor’s office charged excessive fees. However, then-Cole County Circuit Judge Patricia M. Joyce dismissed Gross’ case. Judge Joyce has since retired.

Counselor Gross is asking the Supreme Court to reverse Judge Joyce’s decision. He argues the governor’s office abused its discretion by acting arbitrarily and in not waiving or reducing fees with his first request.

The governor’s office is represented by State Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office. Deputy Attorney General Jeremiah Morgan argued the case on Wednesday.

Mr. Morgan’s main argument involves the plain language of the Missouri Sunshine Law, saying it authorizes research time to be charged at the actual cost and doesn’t require a waiver of those costs. Deputy Attorney General Morgan also says closed and privileged material can be redacted from responsive documents.

Gross also questions why he was being charged $40 per hour when Missouri law calls for record production “using employees of the body that result in the lowest amount of charges for search, research and duplication time.” Morgan says the $40 per hour rate is the hourly rate of the lowest-paid attorney on Governor Parson’s staff. He also says research time is a major part of an attorney’s work.

Deputy Attorney General Morgan says the governor’s office followed the plain language of the Sunshine Law. He’s asking the Missouri Supreme Court to affirm Judge Joyce’s ruling. He also told the court that if the governor’s office is bombarded with requests like this, they would need to add more staff.

Missouri Supreme Court Judges Laura Stith and Patricia Breckenridge had several questions for Morgan about the records in question. Judge Stith asked if they’re paper, electronic or both. Deputy Attorney General Morgan told her it’s a combination of both.

COVID concerns continue to impact the Missouri Supreme Court. Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice George Draper III was the only judge in the Jefferson City courtroom this morning. The other six judges were remote. Mr. Gross and Mr. Morgan were also at remote locations, and there were no reporters in the courtroom.

Click here to read Brian’s preview of the Gross vs. Parson case, which includes links to the 48-page brief from Counselor Gross, the 37-page brief from Deputy Attorney General Morgan and the amici brief from attorneys for the “St. Louis Post-Dispatch” and “Kansas City Star.”

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