State's highest court takes over governor's phone records case

November 20, 1998|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The state's highest court decided this week that it will hear the sensitive case of whether Gov. Parris N. Glendening's telephone records should be made public, pulling the case from a lower appellate court.

At issue is to what extent the governor's communications with people outside his office are confidential. The Washington Post, which has been seeking the records from six months in 1996, argues that the documents should be disclosed under the state Public Information Act. Glendening has said he believes executive privilege and the need for confidentiality exempt the records from public scrutiny.

The order, signed Wednesday by Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, tells Glendening to file briefs by Jan. 4, 1999, and the newspaper to file by Feb. 3.

The seven-judge Court of Appeals is "the ultimate interpreter of state law," said Eric B. Easton, media law professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law. "The mere fact that they reached down to take the case indicates they place some importance on it."

The Court of Appeals chooses the cases it wants to hear and pulls some awaiting arguments from the Court of Special Appeals, the intermediate appellate court, where this case was awaiting action. The top court probably will hear the matter in the spring.

"It is an indication that the Court of Appeals views this as an especially significant case," said Patrick J. Carome, attorney for the Washington Post. He characterized the issue as "public access to government," saying the records are basic information that do not reflect the content of conversations.

Andrea Leahy-Fucheck, the governor's legal counsel, said, "We presumed this was a likely possibility. There are very significant legal principles at stake in this case that affect the executive branch of government.

"What we are saying is basically that for the governor to disclose all communication publicly would result in a chilling effect on the governor's ability to carry out his constitutional duties," Leahy-Fucheck said.

The governor argued that he must be able to talk privately with companies considering moving into the state and to seek advice confidentially.

Last month, Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Lawrence H. HTC Rushworth told the governor to turn over more than 1,000 pages of telephone and scheduling documents.

Glendening immediately appealed Rushworth's decision to the Court of Special Appeals, which ruled that the governor did not have to divulge the information while the appeal was pending.

Pub Date: 11/20/98

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