Little progress was made today in case between the 29th Legislature and the Daily News over the release of financial documents linked to the inspector general’s 2011 audit. No formal arguments were heard on the substance of either party’s claims. Rather, the entire two-hour session was spent establishing the ground rules for how the case would be argued.
The Daily News has filed suit against the Legislature to compel the release of documents detailing cash advances made to senators during the 26th, 27th, 28th and 29th legislatures under the territory’s open records law. Sen. Ronald Russell, acting on behalf of the Legislature, in turn filed a petition requesting the courts block the release of the documents, claiming they were confidential. The two petitions were combined into one case by the court and will be heard jointly.
Judge Darryl Dean Donohue opened the proceedings by questioning the appropriateness of Russell’s acting as the legal representation for the Senate in this matter. He asked whether it would be more appropriate to have the attorney general represent the government.
Russell, who is an attorney, said the Legislature usually retains its own legal council as a way of maintaining the separation of powers, leaving the attorney general to represent agencies under the executive branch.
He said that, as a lawyer, he was qualified to represent the Legislature and he was the best attorney for the job since he was already familiar with the particulars of the case.
Donohue asked whether or not Russell had been hired by the Legislature for this purpose, to which Russell replied that he had not and that, in fact, the Legislature could not currently afford to bring in outside council.
“We’ve exhausted all our resources,” he said. “We’re shot for cash.”
Donohue was still unconvinced, raising the concern that Russell may be too entangled in the case as he is named directly in the suit filed by the Daily News and would likely be called as a witness.
“You can’t cross-examine yourself,” he warned.
Russell said he did not see the need for any witnesses to be called since the two parties did not disagree on any factual issues, only the interpretation of the law. He said he believed Donohue could make his ruling based solely on his and the Daily News’ written arguments.
Attorney Kevin Rames, representing the Daily News, said he was open to that solution.
Russell and Rames were then called into judge’s chambers to discuss “sensitive issues,” likely regarding Russell’s claim that there is an ongoing federal investigation involving the documents being requested. They also agreed on the exact parameters of the argument to be heard.
After an hour, Donohue returned to the courtroom and announced that both parties would file new briefs arguing a single question: whether or not the government could refuse public access to documents currently in their possession on the grounds that they were once, or are currently, evidence in an investigation by any investigative body, such as the inspector general or the FBI.
Both parties were ordered to file their briefs by noon Thursday. The arguments will be heard at the R.H. Amphlett Leader Justice Center on Friday at 10 a.m.