Criminal defense attorneys and other government watchdog types who use open records requests to obtain information suffered a recent setback. In City of Dallas v. Abbott, the Texas Supreme Court addressed the government’s deadline for complying with such requests and gave the government a new loophole.
In the past, the government had a strict 10-day deadline for complying with open records requests. If the request was vague or overly broad, the government could seek clarification but the clock stopped running only until the clarification was provided. Now, however, the government’s deadline will be extend by 10 days.
That may not seem like such a big deal but the concern is that government officials may use the loophole to improperlydelay the release of information in time-sensitive situations in order to avoid accountability. Such concerns seem well-founded in light of the government’s history in this arena, which is what led to the legislature to impose the strict deadline in the first place.
Lawyer Bill Christian, who has represented the Austin American-Statesman on open records matters, has the following suggestions for avoiding improper delays with open records requests:
• Be as specific as possible so there are no grounds for seeking clarification. Don’t ask for “all documents” or “all records” unless it’s for a narrow, well-defined category.
• Make specific, narrow and numbered requests so that it’s more difficult for the agency to claim that the requests are vague.
• If you know what you are asking for, identify that document specifically as one of the numbered list.
• When a government agency seeks clarification, reply as quickly as possible with a narrowing or clarifying explanation.