For some two years, Gates Sellers contended that audio recordings of his mother’s probate hearings in McIntosh County were public records he was entitled to listen to and make copies of if he chose.
On Monday, the state Attorney General’s Office agreed.
Audio recordings of district court proceedings filed with or maintained by a state district court clerk are subject to the Open Records Act unless properly sealed by court order or specifically exempted by statute, according to the formal opinion.
That conclusion shouldn’t come as a surprise. Previous attorney general opinions have said the court clerk’s office is a public body, criminal pleadings are public records once filed with the court clerk (1999 OK AG 58) and court clerks are public officials (2009 OK AG 27) subject to the Open Records Act. The statute’s definition of public body explicitly includes courts (Okla. Stat. tit. 51, § 24A.3(2)). And, our state’s top appellate courts have said the Open Records Act applies to court records (Nichols v. Jackson, 2002 OK 65, ¶ 1; Nichols v. Jackson, 2001 OK CR 35, ¶ 8).
Nevertheless, I’ve received a few complaints over the years of court clerks refusing to provide copies of trial transcripts. In one instance, a reporter was initially told by a court clerk that a criminal defense attorney could block public access. The county’s presiding judge and district attorney disabused the clerk’s office of that idea.
Sellers said he got no response to two open records requests filed with McIntosh County Court Clerk Carrie Pittman’s office in 2012 for audio recordings of nine hearings. The Court Clerk’s Office had recorded the hearings because the court reporter was working in another county.
Sellers wanted to listen to the audio recordings to verify transcripts purchased for his appeal in the probate case. He called the transcripts “convoluted,” saying some statements were “left out and others added in.”
Sellers blames two lost appeals on the transcripts because the appellate judges have only those to rely upon.
In July, the 65-year-old semi-retired chemist living in Norman contacted his state legislators — Rep. Scott Martin and Sen. Rob Standridge — about the difficulty obtaining the recordings. At the invitation of Rep. Aaron Stiles, Sellers also testified during the House Judiciary Committee’s interim study hearing on the Open Records Act in October. (audio of hearing)
Martin requested the opinion from Attorney General Scott Pruitt. That opinion relied in part on the state Supreme Court’s ruling in Fabian that an audio recording of an administrative hearing was a public record.
Sellers said he will be back in the McIntosh County Court Clerk’s Office in the next week or so with another open records request for the recordings.
“It’s been a long fight,” he said.
Thank you to Sellers for not giving up. His persistence led to a strengthening of the public’s right to know in Oklahoma. Thank you to those who helped, including Reps. Martin and Stiles, and to Pruitt and Assistant Attorney General Kari Y. Hawkins for the opinion.
Joey Senat, Ph.D.
OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.