State Politics

Should you be able to see your lawmakers' correspondence? A judge will decide.

Inside the North Carolina State Legislative Building on Jones Street in Raleigh, N.C.
Inside the North Carolina State Legislative Building on Jones Street in Raleigh, N.C.

The ACLU and a Kitty Hawk resident have asked a Wake County judge to order a North Carolina lawmaker to release correspondence to and from her office about a plastic bag ban.

Kitty Hawk resident Craig Merrill and the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina sued state Rep. Beverly Boswell, a Dare County Republican, in January.

They accused her of violating the state’s public records laws, after Merrill’s requests for information about who she had corresponded with about the plastic bag ban went unmet for more than nine months.

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Rep. Beverly Boswell NC General Assembly

In April 2017, Merrill requested phone records and emails from Boswell’s office so he could get a better understanding of what was going on at the General Assembly and why his representative supported a repeal of a plastic bag ban.

Merrill, an outspoken critic of the repeal, was curious about where Boswell was getting her information. He worried that the ban, which was put in place to help keep plastic bags off the beaches and out of the stomachs of fish, sea turtles and other marine life, was being misrepresented.

The lawsuit could ultimately test the breadth of North Carolina’s public records law and whether lawmakers can shield from their constituents who they are communicating with and how they respond to them.

“Instead of welcoming the efforts of this civic-minded constituent,” Chris Brook, the attorney for Merrill and the ACLU, stated in the request for a hearing, Boswell “has thwarted” Merrill’s efforts for more than a year.

Boswell, who narrowly lost the Republican primary earlier this month after falsely claiming to be a nurse, could not be reached immediately for comment.

The lawsuit filed in January outlines the push and pull between the public’s right to know what is happening in their statehouses and lawmakers' contentions that the public does not need to know everything.

Boswell staffer Beth Strandberg first told Merrill in late April that “documents in the custody of a legislator are treated uniquely under the law.”

Documents between legislators and legislative staff are not public record, she contended, adding that “legislative immunity” protects lawmakers' speech within the General Assembly.

Merrill responded that he was seeking correspondence between Boswell and constituents.

Then Bart Goodson, chief of staff and general counsel for House Speaker Tim Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, provided Merrill with a different reason his records request had been denied.

Goodson contended that “it is the long-held position of the General Assembly bipartisan central staff that constituent emails do not meet the definition of public record,” but offered no state law or court precedent to support that position.

On April 13, four months after the lawsuit was filed, Boswell turned over some records to Merrill but redacted the names and email addresses with whom she and her office were corresponding.

The redactions were made, Brook said, even though many of the communications contain a phrase in which the lawmaker informs people: “Email correspondence to and from this address is subject to North Carolina Public Records Law and may be disclosed to third parties.”

“There is no legally defensible reason for elected officials to hide who they communicate with about the public’s business,” said Brook, the legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina. “Public officials have a legal and ethical responsibility to be open and transparent about their work and release public records upon request.”

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