While not granting automatic access to personal e-mail found on a publicly owned computer — which open-government advocates would have wanted — the Arizona Supreme Court on Wednesday allowed the public a chance to get that access.
It’s a decision that will prevent unscrupulous government employees from hiding possible evidence of their on-duty conduct behind the defense that personal e-mail may not be scrutinized by the public. In a case that sprang from the criminal prosecution of former Pinal County Manager Stan Griffis, the justices ruled that a court can inspect requested e-mails sent or received by public employees on a government computer to determine whether they would qualify as public records and thus should be available for public inspection.
The state’s highest court unanimously held that “such e-mails do not necessarily qualify as public records,” but “the requesting party may ask a trial court to perform an in-chambers inspection to determine whether the documents fall within the public records law.”
The decision states that several of Griffis’ e-mails requested by a Valley newspaper — which was prevented from examining them by an injunction originally granted to Griffis — will now go to a Pinal County Superior Court judge for in-chambers review. The judge will determine whether anything in them went to Griffis’ conduct as a public employee.
Last August, we said in this space that Pinal County’s own policy on e-mail clearly stated that employees have no expectation of privacy when sending and receiving them — ostensibly even if their subjects are not related to their on-duty conduct. As such, we reasoned, their supervisors have the right to read any message they write.
Wednesday’s decision indicates that the justices differentiate between privacy as it relates to a supervisor having access to such e-mail and as it relates to the general public having access. The ruling leaves it up to a lowercourt judge to decide how such e-mails are to be categorized. Still, the justices upheld Arizona’s long tradition of heavily presuming that records in the possession of government officials are public unless shown to be otherwise. “Griffis bears the burden of establishing that the e-mails are not public records,” the justices wrote in their ruling.
As Tribune reporter J. Craig Anderson reported Tuesday, Griffis is expected to be sentenced in May based on his guilty plea to six felony counts relating to misuse of public funds, including theft, fraud and tax fraud.
As such, Griffis himself has bigger worries than whether the public will finally see his e-mail. But Wednesday’s decision should provide the taxpaying public with the opportunity to monitor public employees’ activities through what is contained in email messages sent or received while on the clock.