Lawyers for Indiana Governor and Republican Vice President-elect Mike Pence are expected to argue in court Monday that the state’s judicial branch has no authority to enforce him to comply with Indiana’s public records law.
The civil case before Indiana’s Court of Appeals was brought by Indianapolis attorney William Groth, who sued the Pence administration in 2015 after it denied his request for a document related to the efforts of Republican governors to stop President Barack Obama’s immigration executive order.
Pence has long presented himself as a champion of a free press and the First Amendment. On the campaign trail, he aggressively criticized Democrat Hillary Clinton for refusing to release emails sent from a private server she maintained while secretary of state.
But in Indiana, the Pence administration in a number of cases has argued against the public release of emails and other documents that could shed light on his tenure as governor. In some cases, the administration has withheld documents, delayed responses or flatly denied public records requests filed by The Associated Press and other news organizations.
Pence spokeswoman Kara Brooks says the governor’s office had solid legal arguments in those cases.
“We provide information to reporters and the public daily by answering questions, providing statements, press releases, and other non-confidential and deliberative documents,” Brooks said in an emailed statement. “Any time we withhold documents or redact information, we provide statutory justification and requirements that explain the reason behind withholding the information.”
The case before Indiana’s appellate court comes after a lower court ruled that Pence did not have to turn over a document sought by Groth that was authored by the chief-of-staff to now-Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. The document outlined legal arguments for the GOP’s successful challenge to Obama’s immigration executive order.
Pence’s administration released 57 pages of emails to Groth, a Democrat. But it declined to provide the attached document, which Abbott’s staff had emailed to many Republican governors while trying to recruit other states to join the legal challenge, according to court documents.
A legal brief outlining Pence’s arguments states that the governor’s office acted within its rights by refusing to release the document, which they say is protected by attorney client privilege. But Pence’s attorneys also argue that the state’s constitution calls for a separation of powers, which should prohibit the courts from interfering with the inter-workings of the governor’s office when it comes to public records requests.
The Indiana Supreme Court ruled in April that that it could not order the Legislature to release lawmakers’ email correspondence because it would violate the state constitution’s separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches of government.
A ruling in the case against Pence is not expected immediately. But government watchdog groups say that if the courts ultimately agree with that interpretation, the Indiana governor’s office would police itself when it comes to the release of public records, seriously weakening the law by limiting the ability to sue for records.