Open the records; it's the only way to prevent more child tragedies

Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd
Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd Photo provided

Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd went to the heart of the matter in his ruling Monday, ordering the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to comply with his earlier orders to release files in cases involving deaths or near-deaths of children under its care, and fining the cabinet $756,000 for persistent noncompliance.

The point of public disclosure, Shepherd wrote, is "not to satisfy some unhealthy curiosity, not to sensationalize and not to gratuitously invade the privacy of mourning families. It has been enacted for a single, overriding purpose: to ensure both the cabinet and the public do everything possible to prevent the repeat of such tragedies in the future."

Shepherd also ruled that the cabinet must pay attorneys fees and court costs — which probably will amount to close to $200,000 — for the Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal of Louisville, which began in 2011 trying to gain access to the files. The cabinet has released files but they have been heavily edited, removing far more information than that allowed under Shepherd's rulings.

"The cabinet has intentionally continued to employ a wholesale blanket approach to withholding public records, despite such approach being prohibited by the Open Records Act and contrary to this court's repeated orders," Shepherd wrote.

The reason for open records laws is simple: The government is us, so we have a right and an obligation to know what it's doing.

Allowing the sun to shine on the inner workings of government not only discourages corruption but also ensures that public officials protect the public interest.

As Shepherd wrote, "There can be no effective prevention when there is no public examination of the underlying facts."

The cabinet has incurred almost $1 million in fines and costs, not to mention the enormous resources it has invested, in carrying on this fight to avoid that examination.

Gov. Steve Beshear, who appoints the cabinet secretary, must make it clear that this wasteful and unnecessary fight for government secrecy has to end.