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Columbia Missourian

Lawmakers look to close public info

June 11, 2007 | 2:00 a.m. CDT

Legislation would withhold the identities of state executioners.

JEFFERSON CITY — The state has laws making most government records and meetings open to the public, ensuring that taxpayers — and the media who inform them — have access to data about how their officials are conducting business.

But every year, legislators consider laws to scale back what information is available, and several notable restrictions on public information passed this year. Most await final approval by Gov. Matt Blunt.

A measure that has generated some attention would withhold the identities of people who carry out state executions in Missouri and allow for lawsuits against those who disclose that information.

Supporters say it’s needed to ensure that employees carrying out their jobs don’t face danger from families of the executed seeking revenge.

Opponents say it further shrouds in secrecy a process the public has a right to know about and question. They especially take issue with language preventing the information from being subpoenaed in court. Last year, a legal challenge of Missouri’s lethal injection method resulted in revelations that the physician in charge sometimes reduced the amount of sedative given to condemned inmates.

Some of the 37 other states with the death penalty also shield the identities of their executioners. But if the measure becomes law, Missouri may be the only state to attach a specific penalty to revealing the names, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Another bill withholds the identities of victims of sexual or domestic assault, stalking or forcible rape in otherwise public court records as part of a broader bill that increases protections and services for victims of sexual crimes and domestic violence.

Supporters say closing that information in court documents eliminates one avenue abusers have to find their victims, and lawmakers voiced little concern about that exception to the open-records law.

“There’s a good argument for the moral case,” said Sandy Davidson, a law and journalism associate professor at MU. “But we do have a First Amendment, and we do have an open court system. Repeatedly the Supreme Court has talked about the importance of having an open court system so we can be assured of fairness of trials.”

Lawmakers’ track record of placing more clouds into a law nicknamed for flooding government operations with sunshine has open government supporters worried.

“We took some hits this year, and consequently, the public took some hits,” said Doug Crews, director of the Missouri Press Association. “We’ve had some successes previously in changes to the Sunshine Law that strengthened access to meetings and records by the public, but I didn’t see that this year.”

MU also succeeded in closing financial information of university donors. The university said it’s just trying to prevent having to release details like tax returns or estate plans sought from big-time backers, an issue private colleges don’t face.

Other successful bills would help establish special committees for pharmacists and nurses struggling with drug abuse or other problems, including mental illness, to get treatment. That information would also be closed to public scrutiny.

Still, Crews also measured the overall outcome of the legislative session by what proposals to further close government information ultimately failed.

A few provisions making the government more open to the public and the press did prevail.

A bill changing laws on mental health treatment requires final reports of substantiated abuse and neglect against mental health patients in state-run or private contractor centers to be public record. Previously, only the victim or their guardian were entitled to such reports.

The names of the victim and employees involved would still be confidential.