Politics & Government

You now have the right to inspect the records of this scandal-plagued state agency

The Frankfort headquarters of the Administrative Office of the Courts.
The Frankfort headquarters of the Administrative Office of the Courts. ddesrochers@herald-leader.com

For the first time, Kentuckians have the right to inspect many of the documents created by the agency that runs Kentucky’s courts system.

The Kentucky Supreme Court signed an order this week creating an open-records policy for the scandal-plagued Administrative Office of the Courts.

The state’s top court voted unanimously to adopt the policy, which spells out the public’s right to view some of the agency’s documents. It goes into effect Tuesday.

“Transparency and accountability are bedrock principles in maintaining trust in state government,” Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. said. “While the judicial branch has long complied with the spirit of the Open Records Act, it was time to formalize our commitment into written policy.”

The Administrative Office of the Courts — which is responsible for administering the budget for the judicial branch of state government, upkeeping court facilities, maintaining court statistics, and administering personnel policies and payroll — is not subject to the state’s open-records law.

State Rep. Jason Nemes, a Republican from Louisville and a former AOC director, said the policy is a significant shift in position for the state’s top court.

“It’s a very good day,” Nemes said. “I commend the chief justice on bringing the AOC into the light and taking this giant first step.”

Nemes called the new policy a first step because it still isn’t as strict as the open-records law that applies to the executive branch of state government. In particular, Nemes said, he was disappointed that the policy applies only to the AOC instead of the entire court of justice and that it exempted too many documents from public inspection.

The policy details 21 categories of documents that don’t have to be released, including the broad categories of “legal research and analysis,” advisory opinions and other documents “relied upon to make decisions,” and “notes, outlines, memoranda, and similar preliminary materials.”

The AOC has generally responded to requests for documents from news agencies in the past, but it often refuses to release records that the executive branch of government would have to make public under the Open Records Act.

For example, the AOC refused to provide the Herald-Leader some of the records it requested in April about the sale of surplus items, including vehicles, to AOC employees. The AOC said it was withholding the documents because of a pending investigation into “possible irregularities related to the sale of state surplus vehicles.” Kentucky’s Open Records Act would have required any other public office to release documents about the vehicles.

The courts systems ability to bypass the state’s open records law is rooted in the constitutional separation of powers: Court records are part of the judicial process and subject only to the courts’ control. The state’s chief justices have repeatedly rebuffed suggestions that it voluntarily make its administrative arm subject to the law.

The new policy is the latest attempt to clean up the agency’s image. Shortly after news of the attorney general’s investigation broke, the AOC handed responsibility for surplus sales to the executive branch, which has a strict set of guidelines that prohibits employee-only sales.

In June, the AOC also asked state Auditor Mike Harmon to review its financial transactions, the first external audit of the AOC in recent history.

Later that month, an employee fired in the fallout of the attorney general’s investigation filed a whistleblower lawsuit alleging mismanagement and wrongdoing in three areas: financial irregularities in payments to court-appointed attorneys in a Northern Kentucky county; the use of a certain heating and cooling company to perform millions of dollars worth of unauthorized maintenance at courthouses statewide; and improper use of state funding allocated to supreme court justices, including a decision to lease office space for a Supreme Court judge from a member of the judge’s family and using travel expenses to rent a condominium in Frankfort.

Daniel Desrochers: 502-875-3793, @drdesrochers, @BGPolitics