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How does Ohio high court rule on open records?

Posted at 8:59 PM, Sep 30, 2015

COLUMBUS — When it comes to disputes over public records, the Ohio Supreme Court most often sides with the government, according to a new study.

WCPO media partner the Journal-News reports that a new analysis from the Ohio Coalition for Open Government shows court rulings and justices’ votes more often restrict access to public records.

The analysis examined 32 open-records cases before the Ohio Supreme Court since 2010, 20 of which favored restricting or denying access to government documents and files.

The analysis found that, among sitting justices, Terrence O’Donnell voted 77 percent of the time to restrict access while Judith French voted against access 60 percent of the time.

One example of such government files with recent, local significance is police body camera footage.

RELATED: Prosecutor says Ohio law must catch up with body cam technology
READ MORE: Media sue prosecutor for release of Tensing's body cam footage

In the days following the shooting death of Sam DuBose by ex-University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing during an off-campus traffic stop, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters denied media requests for the footage, pending a grand jury’s decision whether or not to indict Tensing.

In the weeks to follow, Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell expressed concern over increased demand for body cameras in law enforcement, saying that if such footage is released before an investigation is completed, witnesses could tailor their testimony to what the video shows (or doesn’t show).

Cincinnati media outlets, including WCPO, sued Deters for the footage before the prosecutor ultimately released it.

Another controversial open records request, which prompted outcry from Deters, city leaders and administrators alike, surrounded the dash camera footage from the June 19 shooting death of Cincinnati Police Officer Sonny Kim by TrePierre Hummons in Madisonville.

In response to the coalition’s analysis, the court said it only interprets laws passed by the General Assembly, and “is not free to use cases to legislate its own views on open government.”

But Dennis Hetzel, president of the coalition and director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, said those laws might need to be fixed.

“A number of decisions in recent years have made it particularly difficult to gain access to government records in Ohio,” he said.

The analysis did note a string of recent rulings in favor of open government.

Ohio’s open records law describes what documents are available to the public, but also establishes more than 300 scenarios where records can be withheld legally.

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Laura A. Bischof with the Journal-News' Columbus bureau contributed to this report. Read her original report here.