The Arizona Court of Appeals today smacked down Sheriff Joe Arpaio, ruling that administrators at the Maricopa County Superior Court do not have to turn over thousands of e-mails, as Arpaio had demanded.
In a unanimous decision released this morning, the three-judge panel found that Superior Court Adminstrator Marcus Reinkensmeyer acted correctly when he turned down two public records requests from Arpaio's then-spokesman, Paul Chagolla.
"The Sheriff requested thousands of random, unidentified electronic messages (e-mails) and documents, without regard to subject matter, sent to or from certain individuals, within a range of dates," the judges wrote. "The request contained no other limiting criteria. A full response to such a request would have required an extraordinary expenditure of resources not only to identify the material falling under the request, but even more time to isolate and exclude e-mails and documents falling within the request that contained attorney and judicial work product.
"Such an untargeted review would seriously impede the court's performance of its core functions with no discernable public benefit."
Chagolla, who himself has chastised New Times for what he considers overly broad records requests, sent two requests to court administrators in December 2007, asking for all the emails written by certain court personnel. Amazingly, for an agency that frequently takes months on end to cough up the simplest of records, Chagolla demanded that the court give him all the emails in question in just two weeks' time.
When Court Administrator Reinkensmeyer explained to Chagolla that his request did not comply with Arizona Law, he responded by attempting to fix his initial error -- and asked for even more records. This time, Reinensmeyer issued a stronger denial.
According to the appellate opinion, "Reinkensmeyer further noted that the vast majority of requested documents were judicial work product or administrative records, which are not subject to public inspection pursuant to Rules 123(d)(3) and 123(e). Reinkensmeyer again offered to meet with Chagolla to explore alternatives that would allow access to records."
Chagolla pushed back a little, but seemed to give up -- until December 2008. At that point, Arpaio's top aide, David Hendershott, telephoned Reinkensmeyer to say the Sheriff's Office was unhappy that a retired judge he considered hostile to the MCSO had been brought in to hear the case of Supervisor Don Stapley, indicted on a host of felony counts. Hendershott then demanded that the court produce records from Chagolla's initial request ASAP.
Court adminstrators again denied the request, leading to a challenge from the sheriff. The challenge led to an in-camera review from the superior court's associate presiding judge. That judge also ruled against the sheriff -- leading to Arpaio's appeal to the appellate court and his loss this morning.
The appellate decision notes that the judicial system always has been a different animal than the other branches of government.
"In most cases, court proceedings and case records are open to the public on an immediate basis without the need for a special request," the opinion explains. "The nature of the courts' work, however, implies that their internal communications are likely to involve legal analysis or judicial work product. These areas have long been recognized as exempt from disclosure, and Rule 123 properly recognizes that the handling of a request for judicial records involves considerations unique to the branch."
Add in the unspecified nature of Chagolla's request -- he didn't limit his request to certain topics, instead asking for all e-mail by certain individuals -- and it's not suprising that the court ruled the way it did.
Considering how Arpaio's office has never allowed the facts to get in the way of a pitched political battle, however, we have no doubt that the Sheriff's Office will try to appeal this one to the Arizona Supreme Court. We're not saying they'll be successful, of course -- we're just predicting they're gonna try.
And why shouldn't they? It's not them paying the legal bills. They've got us, the taxpayers, for that.