Newspaper’s court win so narrow as to be really meaningless

Well, that was a victory so narrow as to be almost meaningless.

The banner story in the morning newspapers relates that a district court judge’s ruling barring the paper from further reporting on an autopsy report of one of the victims of the Oct. 1 Route 91 shooting was overturned by a three-justice panel of the state Supreme Court.

Justice Kris Pickering

But the ruling completely skirts the core issue of whether autopsy reports are public records and relies solely on a 1989 case out of Florida that basically stated that once the cat is out of the bag it can’t be put back. In the Florida Star case the court held that a reporter copied and published a publicly available police report about a rape victim, even though Florida law makes it “unlawful to ‘print, publish, or broadcast … in any instrument of mass communication’ the name of the victim of a sexual offense …”

The court said the Star lawfully obtained the information and could not be punished because the sheriff’s office failed to follow its own policy of redacting the names of rape victims.

The Nevada court ruling essentially said this was the case with the autopsy report and did not rule on whether the report was a public record. Justice Kris Pickering wrote, “For purposes of our analysis we assume, without deciding, that the Hartfield Parties had a protectable privacy interest in preventing disclosure of Mr. Hartfield’s redacted autopsy report.” The key phrase is “without deciding.”

The autopsy of off-duty police officer Charleston Hartfield was one of the 58 autopsy reports released to the newspaper and The Associated Press after they sued to obtain the records. The names and personal identifying information were redacted, which according to Pickering the “Review-Journal conceded was appropriate.” His widow sued in an effort to block further publication, citing privacy grounds.

So, the question remains, are records prepared by a public official using public funds to determine a public safety matter covered by the state’s strong public records law that states records are available to the public “unless otherwise declared by law to be confidential …”?

The closest the state Constitution comes to addressing this question is when it states that victims of crimes are to be “treated with fairness and respect for his or her privacy and dignity” and defines a victim of a crime as including a deceased person’s family members.

All the court panel did was say the paper obtained the already heavily redacted records legally. It did not say whether in the future the coroner could refuse to release any information.

The heavy lifting remains to be done.