The key to our watchdog work — shining a light on government and holding public officials accountable — comes down to a single word: Transparency.
In our world it means relatively easy access to public information — documents and records on how government employees spend our tax dollars and make their policy decisions.
The “paper trail” is essential because we can’t review or assess what we can’t see, and we can’t see what’s hidden behind a public official’s closed door.
Transparency is what U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis was talking about a century ago when he said, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
A hundred years later it’s still a perfect metaphor in defense of open government.
Recently, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the principle in an important decision that sharpens our most valuable transparency tool, Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act.
The case centered on the obligation of county prosecutors — our state’s attorneys — to hand over the documents that watchdogs request.
For years their offices routinely complied with our FOIA submissions — in fact, many were so cooperative they designated a “FOIA Officer” to field our inquiries.
But that changed in 2011, when the Kendall County state’s attorney sparked a legal battle by claiming his office was part of the judicial system, which is exempt from FOIA.
The trial and appellate courts agreed, and the ripple effect was chilling.
Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez stopped responding to FOIA requests, even though her office had its own compliance officer, and she went a step further by supporting Kendall’s position in an amicus — “friend of the court” — brief.
But late last month the Illinois Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, rejected her argument and overturned the earlier court rulings, calling Kendall County’s position “untenable” and concluding that state’s attorneys have “long been recognized” as non-judicial governmental bodies subject to FOIA.
The decision noted that the transparency FOIA facilitates is critical to the proper functioning of our democracy.
So here’s a big watchdog shout-out to the high court, and to Attorney General Lisa Madigan for supporting the good guys in this legal dispute.
As the Sun-Times wrote in an editorial last week, her “friend of the court” filing argued, on behalf of watchdogs everywhere, that FOIA is meant to be interpreted broadly and to provide “full and complete” access to public records.
That reflects the legal interpretation of the BGA and others in their own amicus briefs, and it’s important — even beyond the principle of transparency — because prosecutors wield enormous power, and too often it’s been abused.
The BGA has reported on troubling conduct by investigators inside Anita Alvarez’s own office, and who can forget the questionable way prosecutors handled the Koschman case that initially gave a Daley relative a pass in a booze-fueled 2004 beating death?
This is also a state with a shameful history of wrongful convictions, many of them coerced by Chicago police commander John Burge’s sadistic homicide squad and validated by errant prosecutors.
So it’s reassuring to have our highest state court reaffirm FOIA as a legitimate tool for keeping an eye on prosecution offices.
But there is still more to be done.
Some circuit court clerks, including Cook County’s Dorothy Brown, argue they’re not subject to FOIA either because they’re part of the judicial system.
But other court clerks, including the one in Springfield’s Sangamon County’s, do respond to FOIA requests.
That reinforces our belief that individual court clerks shouldn’t be allowed to operate in secrecy, and we have to wonder if a lack of transparency has contributed to a series of problems we’ve uncovered in Brown’s office, even without the benefit of FOIA.
The Supreme Court ruling enables us to keep shining a light on Anita Alvarez and other state’s attorneys, and we’ll be pushing for similar access to the goings-on inside the offices of our court clerks.
We can hold them even more accountable if they’re subject to our FOIA requests, and it would be nice to have AG Madigan with us on this one too.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association.