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Editorial: Death certificates case about openness

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Last week the Indiana Supreme Court heard arguments about whether death certificates are public records and whether the public should be able to obtain the information from county health departments.

The case involved the lawsuit Evansville Courier & Press and Rita Ward v. Vanderburgh County Health Department.

The newspaper and Ward, a Pike County resident, asked the Vanderburgh County Health Department to give them access to death certificates. When their requests were denied, they alleged a violation of the Access to Public Records Act. In the lawsuit, originally filed in 2012, they asked the court to order that the records be released.

The court refused, saying that death certificates are public records that may be disclosed “only if” certain circumstances are present, such as whether the person seeking them has a direct interest in the death and whether it is needed to determine issues of property rights.

The Court of Appeals of Indiana upheld the decision. In effect, the court said a death certificate was not a public record. And now the issue is before the Indiana Supreme Court.

In finding that a death certificate is not public information, the appeals court overturned nearly 40 years of precedent and raised questions about legislative intent with regard to access to public records.

Steve Key, executive director and general counsel of the Hoosier State Press Association, said last fall that the decision not only upended a 1975 ruling by the Court of Appeals but also went against the Indiana Public Access Counselor’s opinion that the death certificates are public records.

For the record, the Daily Journal is a member of the press association.

Key continued: “In our mind, it’s a significant change from what everybody felt was the law since 1975. And it does have a great impact on the ability of people to better understand what’s happening in their communities in terms of why people are dying.”

Keeping the public informed is at the heart of our mission as a newspaper. We do not routinely seek death certificates, nor do we publish cause-of-death information without a compelling reason. But in those instances where that information is important to the public, we need to be able to access it quickly and openly, just as with any other public document.

In what is called a “friend of the court” brief filed with the state’s high court, Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said:

“We are always sensitive to Hoosiers’ privacy concerns, but the statute calls for this basic document, setting forth the decedent’s name, age and cause of death, to be a public record accessible at the county level. In keeping with the principles of transparency and accountability, we ask merely for a return to what had been the longstanding practice of making the cause of death in death certificates promptly available to the public who has the right to that information.”

The Indiana Supreme Court took the case under advisement and will rule at a later date.

We urge the justices to overturn the appellate court decision and return the state to the practices of the past several decades.

This is not a case of prying into personal lives. It is a matter of openness in government and preserving the public’s right to know vital information.

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