The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has scored a victory in its fight to get about 1,000 documents from the Maryland Department of the Environment, with an Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge ordering the state agency to hand over the papers for his review.
"What we're most interested in seeing is a review of the documents by an independent judge," said George A. Chmael, staff attorney for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
The nonprofit group has been fighting for more than three years to get the documents. The foundation thinks the papers will show the state has been dragging its feet on complying with the 1972 Clean Water Act and hopes the documents will bolster a federal lawsuit aimed at forcing a faster cleanup of state waterways.
However, state officials have maintained that the documents are exempt from public disclosure. They point to an administrative ruling by an MDE employee that found only 14 of the disputed documents releasable. In a September hearing, an MDE lawyer asked Judge Joseph P. Manck to rule based on the agency's administrative findings.
But in an opinion filed Thursday, Manck said he would review the documents.
The opinion stated that the agency needed to give more detailed explanations as to why each document was withheld.
"We're confident that when the judge does review the documents he will find that they were properly withheld under the public information act," MDE spokesman John Verrico said.
Most documents were withheld, officials said, because they fell under the "deliberative process privilege," which is designed to foster the exchange of ideas within state government by protecting agencies from public scrutiny.
"Failure to provide the Court with sufficient guidance as to why a document is to be considered ... deliberative may result in disclosure of all or part of that document," Manck's opinion stated.
The foundation is pleased with the ruling, Chmael said, because it had called for a detailed review by an authority independent of MDE.
"If there's a determination by the judge that some documents are being rightfully withheld, then so be it. But we're not convinced that the state agency's determination of what's being withheld is satisfactory," Chmael said.
"That's what the litigation has been all about, is accessing the documents that are in the public realm, and we have a judge who now seems prepared to make that decision."
The opinion did not say when a decision could be expected.