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Institute for Justice v. Reilly

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fifth Division

July 2, 2019

INSTITUTE FOR JUSTICE
v.
REILLY et al.

          MCFADDEN, C. J., MCMILLIAN, P.J., and GOSS, J.

          McMillian, Presiding Judge.

         This appeal challenges a trial court order dismissing a complaint which alleged that various state legislative offices violated Georgia's Open Records Act, OCGA § 50-18-70 et seq. (the "Act"). The trial court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim. Because the General Assembly and its offices are not subject to the provisions of the Act, as construed by our Supreme Court, we affirm the order of dismissal.

         In reviewing a trial court's ruling on a motion to dismiss, "[o]ur role is to determine whether the allegations of the complaint, when construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and with all doubts resolved in the plaintiff's favor, disclose with certainty that the plaintiff would not be entitled to relief under any state of provable facts." (Citations and punctuation omitted.) Handberry v. Stuckey Timberland, Inc., 345 Ga.App. 191, 191 (812 S.E.2d 547) (2018). So construed, the complaint alleged that the Institute for Justice (the "Institute"), a nonprofit public interest law firm, requested records from several Georgia legislative staff offices about a 2012 statute regulating the practice of music therapy. The offices - including the Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives, the Office of the Secretary of the Senate, the House Budget and Research Office, the Senate Budget and Evaluation Office, the Senate Research Office, and the Office of Legislative Counsel - refused the requests, asserting that the General Assembly and its staff offices are exempt from disclosing records under the Act.

         The Institute filed suit against the heads of those offices in their official capacities, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief requiring the state offices to provide the requested records.[1] The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim. After a hearing, the trial court granted the motions to dismiss, finding that the General Assembly and its offices are not subject to the Open Records

         Act. The trial court also found that as to the Office of Legislative Counsel, the records requested are specifically exempt from disclosure. The Institute appeals.[2]

         1. In its current form, Georgia's Open Records Act provides: "All public records shall be open for personal inspection and copying, except those which by order of a court of this state or by law are specifically exempted from disclosure." OCGA § 50-18-71 (a). The Act further provides: "Agencies shall produce for inspection all records responsive to a request within a reasonable amount of time not to exceed three business days of receipt of a request[.]" OCGA § 50-18-71 (b) (1) (A). And if any part of the requested records are withheld from disclosure, "the agency shall notify the requester of the specific legal authority exempting the requested record or records from disclosure by Code section, subsection, and paragraph within a reasonable amount of time not to exceed three business days[.]" OCGA § 50-18-71 (d). As used in the Act, the term "'[a]gency' shall have the same meaning as in Code Section 50-14-1[.]" OCGA § 50-18-70 (b) (1). That code section, which is part of the Open Meetings Act, defines the term "agency" as meaning: "Every state department, agency, board, bureau, office, commission, public corporation, and authority[.]" OCGA § 50-14-1 (a) (1) (A).

         The Institute maintains that the trial court erred in dismissing its complaint because, under the plain language of the Act, it applies to all state "offices," including the offices of the General Assembly. "When we consider the meaning of a statute, we must presume that the General Assembly meant what it said and said what it meant. Thus if the language of the statute is plain and unambiguous, we simply apply the statute as written." (Citations and punctuation omitted.) CPF Investments, LLLP v. Fulton County Bd. of Assessors, 330 Ga.App. 744, 746 (769 S.E.2d 159) (2015). See also OCGA § 1-3-1 (b) (directing the application of ordinary signification to all words in statutes). However, we are also bound to construe the text of a statute in the appropriate context and in a manner consistent with how the text has previously been construed. Our Supreme Court has recently reiterated this principle:

As we have said many times before when interpreting legal text, we do not read words in isolation, but rather in context. The primary determinant of a text's meaning is its context, which includes the structure and history of the text and the broader context in which that text was enacted, including statutory and decisional law that forms the legal background of the written text.

(Citations and punctuation omitted.) City of Guyton v. Barrow, Ga., (3) (Case No. S18G0944, decided on May 20, 2019).

         With these principles in mind, we turn to the Act's legal background, including the Supreme Court's decision in Coggin v. Davey, 233 Ga. 407, 410-11 (II) (211 S.E.2d 708) (1975). At the time Coggin was decided, Georgia's "Sunshine Law," as it was then known, [3] provided:

All meetings of any state department, agency, board, bureau, commission or political subdivision . . . at which official actions are to be taken are hereby declared to be public meetings and shall be open to the public at all times. No resolution, rule, regulation or formal action shall be binding except as taken or made at such meeting. Any action contesting a resolution, rule, regulation or formal action on the ground of noncompliance with this law must be commenced within ninety days of the date of the resolution, rule or regulation was passed or the formal action was taken.

(Punctuation omitted; emphasis added.) 233 Ga. at 407. In construing the language of this statute, the Supreme Court found that, although "the statute is applicable to the departments, agencies, boards, bureaus, etc. of this state and its political subdivisions[, ] . . . [i]t is not applicable to the General Assembly." (Emphasis added.) Id. at 411 (II) (reasoning that, as a separate branch of the government with the power to adopt and enforce its own rules regarding its internal operations, the General Assembly was not included in the Sunshine Law).

         In 2012, the General Assembly undertook a comprehensive revision of both the Open Records Act and Open Meetings Act. See Anna Adams & Lisa Scatamacchia, State Government: Open and Public Meetings, 29 GA. ST. U.L. REV. 139, 145-52 (2012) (summary of numerous amendments made to multiple statutes within each Act). However, nowhere in this comprehensive overhaul did the General Assembly plainly identify itself as now subject to either Act. As explained by our Supreme Court, "the General Assembly, including its committees, commissions and offices, is not subject to a law unless named therein or the intent that ...


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