Ga. Supreme Court declines to review Mercer University case

GEORGIA — The state supreme court today declined to review a lower court’s ruling in a lawsuit to make Mercer University Police Department records open to the public. The decision effectively ends a court battle that has lasted more than a year.

The Georgia Supreme Court’s decision not to rule in the matter means supporters of Ga. Senate Bill 153–a bill that seeks to make private university police documents public records–will double their efforts to see the bill’s passage when the state legislative term begins again in January, they said.

The case against Mercer University began in July 2003, when Amanda Farahany, a lawyer representing a female student who alleged she had been sexually assaulted at a fraternity party, asked the private school’s police force to provide her with documents of investigations. When the police declined, Farahany asked a state court to order the school to release the documents under the state open-records law. In January 2004, the court sided with Farahany, saying private campus police officers are granted the same duties and powers as public police officers under Georgia law.

Mercer University appealed the ruling in February 2004, and the Court of Appeals ruled on Feb. 3, 2005, that the campus police department is not a public agency under the state open-records law.

“The mere fact that MUPD officers are given authority to perform certain functions by the Campus Policemen Act, and the Georgia Police Officer Standards and Training Act, does not make them officers of a public office or agency,” the Court of Appeals ruled.

The seven-member supreme court gave no reason for its decision not to hear the case. Justice Leah Ward Sears was the sole dissenting vote, indicating she wished to hear the case.

Farahany expressed disappointment with the court’s decision not to review the case.

“We’re mostly disappointed because we brought this on behalf of the people of the state of Georgia and the students of the state of Georgia who can’t find out about their own safety,” she said. “Ultimately the fact now–that there is one segment of the population that doesn’t have access to crime records, and that that segment is college students–is not good for students and it’s not good for the safety of our people.”

State Sen. Dave Adelman (D-Decatur) introduced Senate Bill 153 in response to the Court of Appeals’ ruling in February. Although the bill passed in the Senate, it failed to progress through committee in time for a full vote by the House of Representatives. Its supporters are optimistic it will pass quickly next year. Adelman said the supreme court’s ruling Thursday will help their efforts.

“This should add strength to our effort to pass Senate Bill 153 next year because it upholds the strict interpretation of the Court of Appeals and leaves to the Georgia general assembly the charge to close the loopholes in Georgia’s Open Records Act,” he said.

Carolyn Carlson, co-chair of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Campus Crime subcommittee and a proponent of the legislation, expressed surprise that the court, which she said has traditionally been open to freedom of information cases, did not hear the case. She said she is now looking forward to seeing Senate Bill 153 passed.

“The legislative solution is all we have left,” Carlson said. “We’ll focus everything we can on getting that bill out of the House committee and onto the House floor for a final vote.”

–By Campbell Roth

CASE: The Corporation of Mercer University/Mercer University Police Department v. Barrett & Farahany, LLP, No. A05A0186 (Ga Ct. App. Feb. 3, 2005)

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