A Suffolk Superior Court judge has ordered three district attorneys to turn over records sought by The Boston Globe after Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey sued the agencies for failing to comply with the state public records law.
In a 2016 lawsuit, Healey sued district attorneys representing Plymouth and Worcester counties and the Cape and Islands for refusing to comply with an order from Secretary of State William F. Galvin’s office to give the Globe a list of cases they prosecuted.
The suit is believed to be the first time Healey or her predecessors had to go to court to enforce the state’s public records law since the law was enacted more than four decades ago. And after another two years of legal motions, a judge sided with the attorney’s general’s office.
“The AG’s office took the position that these records are subject to disclosure under the public records law, and we are pleased that the court agreed,” said Emalie Gainey, a spokeswoman for Healey’s office.
Under the Massachusetts public records law, documents from most state agencies are generally presumed to be public. But the three district attorneys argued the lists of cases they prosecuted fell under several exceptions, including one intended to limit access to the state’s centralized database of criminal records and another to protect confidential communications with government attorneys about legal issues. The Plymouth and Cape district attorneys also argued that it would require a crushing amount of resources to export data from the computer systems they used to track court cases. The Plymouth district attorney’s office argued that exporting data would be the equivalent of creating a new record, which is not required by the law.
But in a 31-page opinion, Suffolk Superior Court Justice Rosemary Connolly rejected the district attorneys’ arguments. Connolly said that almost all the information the Globe requested about the cases, such as the filing dates and dispositions of the cases, would be readily available in public court records. Indeed, in a footnote, Connolly noted that the Globe could compile the data itself if it had unlimited time to sit in court offices across the state and copy the information.
“The public records law does not recognize a blanket exemption for records that may otherwise be public simply because those records are held at a district attorney’s office,” Connolly wrote in the ruling, dated November 15, but just received by the attorney general’s office this week.
Connolly also noted the Supreme Judicial Court had already decided “a virtually identical case” brought by the Globe 15 years ago. In that case, the SJC ruled that district attorneys had to give the Globe a list of municipal corruption cases they had handled. Connolly also noted the Globe was not seeking the names of the defendants, but instead seeking other data about the cases, which the Globe hopes to use to analyze the court’s operations.
A spokeswoman for Plymouth District Attorney Timothy Cruz’s office said the office was reviewing the decision and its options to appeal. A spokesman for Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. said it just forwarded the ruling to its attorney, so did not yet have a comment.
And the office of Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe did not respond to requests for comment on the decision Wednesday afternoon.
The Globe originally requested the court data from district attorneys across the state in early 2015 to assess the quality of justice in the system. When several district attorneys refused to provide the data, the Globe appealed to Secretary of State William Galvin’s office, which ruled in the Globe’s favor. When these three district attorneys still refused to comply, Galvin’s office referred the matter to Healey’s office in 2016.
Under an unusual wrinkle in the state’s public records law, Galvin’s office is charged with overseeing administrative appeals to the state public records law – but only the attorney general’s office has the authority to enforce those orders.
Globe reporter Todd Wallack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @twallack.