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Court Rules Public Records on Personal Accounts Are Subject to Release

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Brady Toensing argues a public records case before the Vermont Supreme Court. - POOL: APRIL MCCULLUM
  • Pool: April McCullum
  • Brady Toensing argues a public records case before the Vermont Supreme Court.
State employees can be compelled to turn over public records stored on their personal email and phone accounts, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled Friday.

In a 5-0 decision, justices reversed a lower court judge's ruling that documents stored on private accounts are not subject to public records requests. The high court said that its decision applied only to documents that meet the legal definition under the public records act, not private correspondence.

"The notion that state employees have a privacy interest in records that are by law public records — those produced or acquired in the course of agency business — is incongruous," Justice Beth Robinson said in the 20-page decision.

In June 2016, Vermont Republican Party vice chair Brady Toensing sued then-attorney general Bill Sorrell, a Democrat, after he refused to search his personal accounts and hand over records that might be pertinent to Toensing’s request. Sorrell’s successor, Attorney General T.J. Donovan, defended the office as the case continued.

Citing privacy concerns, Superior Court Judge Robert Mello sided with the Attorney General’s Office in February. However, the judge raised the "seriously, and, frankly, disturbing concern" that his ruling would allow public officials to circumvent the public records act by conducting public business on their personal accounts.

Toensing, a Charlotte attorney, appealed the decision to the high court. Several news organizations, including Seven Days, filed a brief in support of his case.

The Vermont Press Association on Friday called the ruling "a victory for open government."

"The decision reiterates the public’s long-held understanding that government business conducted by government officials is subject to the requirements of the Public Records Act, regardless of whether that business was conducted on a public or private system," said VPA president Adam Silverman, an editor at the Burlington Free Press. "In other words, and what the Supreme Court unanimously concluded, is: What matters is the work itself, not where the government official did the work."


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