Indiana Supreme Court Denies Hearing for Knightstown Officials

Pro-Access Ruling Stands for Citizen Review of Lawsuit Settlements
The state’s highest court has refused transfer of a case that allows public inspection of out-of-court insurance settlements with Indiana towns. The case stemmed from The (Knightstown) Banner’s request to obtain a copy of a settlement agreement that ended a civil rights lawsuit brought by a former Knightstown police dispatcher. The town won a local court ruling, claiming it had no copy of the record and therefore did not have to disclose the information as a public record. The Court of Appeals sided with the newspaper and ordered the town to release the settlement. With the Supreme Court’s decision, the pro-access ruling stands. Based on news reports, it is doubtful the case will be appealed.

 

Indiana Supreme Court Denies Hearing for Knightstown Officials
Pro-Access Ruling Stands for Citizen Review of Lawsuit Settlements

By Jeff Eakins
Editor

The Banner and advocates of open government received a huge victory earlier this week from the state’s
highest court.

In an order issued Monday, the Indiana Supreme Court declined to grant requests for transfer filed by the
Town of Knightstown and its insurer. This leaves standing an Indiana Court of Appeals ruling favoring the
Banner’s efforts to obtain a copy of a settlement agreement that ended former Knightstown police
dispatcher GiGi Steinwach’s federal civil rights lawsuit against the town, its police department and several department employees in 2003.

The Court of Appeals ruled in December that the settlement agreement is a public record. Judge Patricia
Riley, writing for the court, also said the town, which said it has no copy of the agreement, is obligated to
maintain a copy for its own records and provide a copy to The Banner. With Monday’s decision by the
Indiana Supreme Court to deny the requests for transfer, the Court of Appeals decision from December
becomes final.

“This is obviously a big win for The Banner,” Eric Cox, owner and publisher of The Banner, said
yesterday. “It’s an even bigger victory, however, for all those across Indiana who support and defend the
people’s right to information about their government and the conduct of public employees and officials.
“Allowing public agencies to secretly settle lawsuits brought against them and their employees is not
consistent with an open democratic form of government,” Cox continued. “Now, with the Indiana Supreme
Court allowing the Court of Appeals ruling to stand, the illegality of secret settlements like the one in the
Steinwachs case is no longer in doubt.”

Cox also said the Supreme Court’s refusal to grant the requests for transfer validates the newspaper’s
ongoing efforts on behalf of public access issues. “This case and its outcome are proof that The Banner
does not act irresponsibly or bring frivolous legal actions,” Cox said. “The state’s highest court is allowing a unanimous Court of Appeals decision in our favor to stand and become the law of the state, which speaks highly not only of this particular case, but also The Banner’s journalism.”
Kurt Webber, The Banner’s attorney, was also pleased with Monday’s ruling. However, he said his
preference would have been for the Indiana Supreme Court to grant transfer and then explicitly affirm the
Court of Appeals ruling.

“The denial of transfer is bittersweet,” said Webber. “It’s always good to win but, in an ideal world, the
news media could benefit from the Supreme Court expressly adopting the position of the Court of
Appeals.”

When it ruled in favor of the Banner in December, the Court of Appeals reversed an unfavorable decision
The Banner received in April 2005 from Henry Circuit Court Judge Mary Willis, who had ruled the
Steinwachs settlement agreement was not a public record. The Court of Appeals ruling requires Willis to
issue an order directing the town to obtain a copy of the settlement and give it to The Banner.

Webber said he hopes the town and its insurer promptly comply without further legal challenges once
Willis issues the required order. “The town should quit wasting taxpayer money and just give the Banner a copy of the settlement agreement before further judicial intervention becomes necessary,” he said.
Steve Key, general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association, said his organization was also happy with Monday’s ruling. The HSPA, a trade organization representing over 170 news publications in Indiana, acted as an amicus curiae supporting The Banner’s position before the Indiana Court of Appeals and
Indiana Supreme Court.

“We’re pleased with the Indiana Supreme Court’s decision not to accept transfer of the case, which
leaves the Court of Appeals ruling in place,” said Key. “We felt the appellate court had rightfully addressed he policy questions in play and ruled in favor of the public’s right to know what government agencies are greeing to in court settlements of cases concerning actions taken by public agencies or their employees.”

In addition to the HSPA, five other organizations also joined in the amicus brief that urged the Indiana
Supreme Court to deny the requests for transfer filed by the town and its insurer. That amicus brief was
drafted by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and was also signed by the HSPA, the
American Society of Newspaper Editors, the National Newspaper Association, Radio-Television News
Directors Association and the Society of Professional Journalists.
“I’m not surprised transfer was denied because this is the way the case should come out,” Lucy Dalglish,
the RCFP’s executive director, told The Banner yesterday. “This is precisely the kind of information that
state open record laws are intended to cover.”

Members of the Knightstown Town Council learned the Indiana Supreme Court had denied the requests
for transfer just prior to a special meeting Monday evening on an unrelated matter. They were reluctant to
say much about this development, not having had an opportunity to discuss the matter with their attorney,
David Copenhaver, who was on vacation and not at the meeting.
“I think everybody’s pretty well tired of the whole thing,” said Town Council President David Glenn,
“but we just don’t know what move we’re going to make.” He said the council would consult with
Copenhaver once he returns to work.
“In my opinion, we’re done,” said council member Cort Swincher. “Obviously, we need to get with our
counsel and speak with him, but if this (ruling) is correct … then it’s time for the subject to end, and we’ll
move forward, take our licks and pay what we have to pay and go from there.”
“The real fact is this whole thing was laid in our laps,” Glenn added. “None of us knew anything about it.
It’s something else we’re just trying to clean up. That’s all it is.”

Knightstown Clerk Treasurer Linda Stearns said she didn’t believe it would be advisable for the town to
mount any further legal challenges involving this matter. “I can’t see where it would be feasible for the
town to spend anymore tax dollars on this,” she said.
The Banner contacted Steinwachs yesterday and advised her of Monday’s ruling from the Indiana
Supreme Court. She declined to comment on this latest development.