Welsh-Huggins v. Jefferson Cnty. Prosecutor's Office, No. 2019-1481

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Ohio
Writing for the CourtDonnelly, J.
Citation163 Ohio St.3d 337,170 N.E.3d 768
Parties WELSH-HUGGINS, Appellant, v. JEFFERSON COUNTY PROSECUTOR'S OFFICE, Appellee.
Docket NumberNo. 2019-1481
Decision Date24 November 2020

163 Ohio St.3d 337
170 N.E.3d 768

WELSH-HUGGINS, Appellant,
v.
JEFFERSON COUNTY PROSECUTOR'S OFFICE, Appellee.

No. 2019-1481

Supreme Court of Ohio.

Submitted July 21, 2020
Decided November 24, 2020


Graydon, Head & Ritchey, L.L.P., John C. Greiner, Cincinnati, and Darren W. Ford, for appellant.

Jane M. Hanlin, Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney, for appellee.

Faruki, L.L.P., Erin E. Rhinehart, and Christopher C. Hollon, Dayton, urging reversal for amici curiae Ohio Coalition for Open Government; Ohio Association of Broadcasters; Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press; The E.W. Scripps Company; Gannet Co., Inc.; International Documentary Association; Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University; The Media Institute; MPA—The Association of Magazine Media; National Freedom of Information Coalition; The News Leaders Association; Society of Environmental Journalists; and Society of Professional Journalists.

Mathias H. Heck Jr., Montgomery County Prosecuting Attorney, and Nathaniel S. Peterson, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney, urging affirmance for amicus curiae Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association.

Donnelly, J.

163 Ohio St.3d 337

{¶ 1} This case presents the issue of whether the video from an exterior courthouse security camera that captured the shooting of a judge as he was about to enter the courthouse through a nonpublic secured entry was a "security record" under R.C. 149.433(A)(1) and therefore exempt from release as a public

163 Ohio St.3d 338

record under R.C. 149.433(B)(1). In proceedings brought pursuant to R.C. 2743.75, the Court of Claims determined that competent evidence had not been presented to establish the security-record exemption and consequently ordered the video's public release subject to certain redactions for undercover-officer confidentiality. The Seventh District Court of Appeals reversed that judgment, holding that the

170 N.E.3d 772

video was a security record that was exempt from public disclosure. We agreed to consider whether the court of appeals correctly determined that the security-record exemption had been established by competent admissible evidence. Based on our review of the record, we hold that the surveillance video at issue here did not fall squarely within the claimed exemption. We accordingly reverse the judgment of the Seventh District Court of Appeals.

I. FACTS

{¶ 2} On August 21, 2017, Joseph J. Bruzzese Jr., a judge of the Jefferson County Court of Common Pleas, was shot and seriously wounded by Nate Richmond near the courthouse. Judge Bruzzese and a nearby probation officer returned fire, and Richmond was fatally wounded. Judge Bruzzese survived his gunshot wounds after undergoing surgery and a lengthy hospital stay.

{¶ 3} The Jefferson County Courthouse was equipped with a security-camera system that recorded the shooting incident. The camera was positioned outside the door where only courthouse personnel entered and exited the courthouse.1

{¶ 4} Later that day, appellant, Andrew Welsh-Huggins, a reporter for the Associated Press, sent an e-mail to appellee, the office of the prosecuting attorney in Jefferson County ("prosecutor"), requesting, as a public record under R.C. 149.43, a copy of the courthouse video showing the shootings. On August 22, 2017, the prosecutor, Jane M. Hanlin, denied Welsh-Huggins's public-records request in writing, setting forth multiple claimed exemptions. Welsh-Huggins's subsequent requests for the video were likewise denied by the prosecutor, as were requests by the assistant general counsel of the Associated Press.

{¶ 5} On May 7, 2018, Welsh-Huggins filed a public-records-access complaint in the Court of Claims pursuant to R.C. 2743.75. After unsuccessful mediation, the prosecutor filed an answer and motion to dismiss on September 11, 2018. Among other things, the prosecutor asserted that the video was exempt from public-records release as a "security record" pursuant to R.C. 149.433(A)(1) and

163 Ohio St.3d 339

149.433(B)(1). Supplemental responses were permitted pursuant to R.C. 2743.75(E)(2).

{¶ 6} On January 28, 2019, the special master filed his report and recommendation. 2019-Ohio-473. Denying the prosecutor's motion to dismiss, the special master determined that the prosecutor failed to meet her burden to prove that any portion of the video was exempt as a security record under R.C. 149.433(A)(1). The special master recommended that the prosecutor be ordered to provide Welsh-Huggins a redacted copy of the video in any available format that Welsh-Huggins requested. On February 20, 2019, the Court of Claims adopted the special master's report over the prosecutor's objections and ordered release of the video.

{¶ 7} The prosecutor filed an appeal in the Seventh District Court of Appeals pursuant to R.C. 2743.75(G)(1). The court of appeals reversed the judgment of the Court of Claims, holding that the video was exempt from disclosure as a security record under R.C. 149.433(A)(1) and 149.433(B)(1). 2019-Ohio-3967, 133 N.E.3d 550, ¶ 1, 32-44.2 The court of appeals found

170 N.E.3d 773

no error in requiring the prosecutor to prove that the video fell squarely within the claimed exemption. Id. at ¶ 50. Having determined that the video was exempt from disclosure as a security record, the court of appeals held that the prosecutor's remaining assigned errors were moot. Id. at ¶ 45-46.

{¶ 8} We accepted Welsh-Huggins's appeal and agreed to consider the following proposition of law: "A public office must produce competent, admissible evidence to support an assertion of an exception to the Public Records Act." See 157 Ohio St.3d 1534, 2020-Ohio-122, 137 N.E.3d 1207. For the reasons that follow, we now reverse the judgment of the court of appeals.

II. ANALYSIS

{¶ 9} This case provides us with the first opportunity to identify the legal standards and evidentiary burdens applicable to public-records-access proceedings that are brought pursuant to R.C. 2743.75, which became effective on September 28, 2016.3 While the process established for proceedings under

163 Ohio St.3d 340

R.C. 2743.75 may be new, the fundamental legal principles that govern disputes over access to alleged public records are not.

{¶ 10} We begin by recognizing once again the critical function served by the right of access to public records that is secured by R.C. 149.43. "The Public Records Act reflects the state's policy that ‘open government serves the public interest and our democratic system.’ " State ex rel. Morgan v. New Lexington , 112 Ohio St.3d 33, 2006-Ohio-6365, 857 N.E.2d 1208, ¶ 28, quoting State ex rel. Dann v. Taft , 109 Ohio St.3d 364, 2006-Ohio-1825, 848 N.E.2d 472, ¶ 20. "Public records are one portal through which the people observe their government, ensuring its accountability, integrity, and equity while minimizing sovereign mischief and malfeasance." Kish v. Akron , 109 Ohio St.3d 162, 2006-Ohio-1244, 846 N.E.2d 811, ¶ 16. Ohio's public-records statutes, "including those constituting Chapter 149, reinforce the understanding that open access to government [records] is an integral entitlement of the people, to be preserved with vigilance and vigor." Id. at ¶ 17. Ohio's Public Records Act " ‘is construed liberally in favor of broad access, and any doubt is resolved in favor of disclosure of public records.’ " State ex rel. Cordell v. Paden , 156 Ohio St.3d 394, 2019-Ohio-1216, 128 N.E.3d 179, ¶ 7, quoting State ex rel. Cincinnati Enquirer v. Hamilton Cty. , 75 Ohio St.3d 374, 376, 662 N.E.2d 334 (1996).

{¶ 11} Until the 2016 enactment of R.C. 2743.75, an action in mandamus under R.C. 149.43(C) was the remedy to compel compliance with R.C. 149.43, Ohio's Public Records Act. See State ex rel. Quolke v. Strongsville City School Dist. Bd. of Edn. , 142 Ohio St.3d 509, 2015-Ohio-1083, 33 N.E.3d 30, ¶ 18, citing State ex rel. Physicians Commt. for Responsible Medicine v. Ohio State Univ. Bd. of Trustees , 108 Ohio St.3d 288, 2006-Ohio-903, 843 N.E.2d 174, ¶ 6. The enactment of R.C. 2743.75 created an alternative means to resolve public-records disputes.

A. Public-Records Dispute Proceedings under R.C. 2743.75

{¶ 12} Recognizing that disputes over public-records requests can frustrate the

170 N.E.3d 774

law's essential purpose, the General Assembly enacted R.C. 2743.75(A) "to provide for an expeditious and economical procedure that attempts to resolve disputes alleging a denial of access to public records" in violation of R.C. 149.43(B). It offers a forum for those who are schooled in the law as well as those who are not. A person allegedly aggrieved by a denial of access to public records in violation of R.C. 149.43(B) may now file either a mandamus complaint pursuant to R.C. 149.43(C)(1)(b) or a public-records-access complaint in the Court of Claims pursuant to R.C. 2743.75. The person cannot pursue both remedies. See R.C. 149.43(C)(1) and...

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    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Ohio
    • January 12, 2022
    ...forward with evidence (or burden of production) and the burden of 29 persuasion.'" Welsh-Huggins v. Jefferson Cty. Prosecutor's Office, 163 Ohio St.3d 337, 2020-Ohio-5371, 170 N.E.3d 768, ¶ 20, quoting Chari v. Vore, 91 Ohio St.3d 323, 326, 744 N.E.2d 763 (2001). The standard also defines t......
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    • United States
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    ...integral entitlement of the people, to be preserved with vigilance and vigor.’ " Welsh-Huggins v. Jefferson Cty. Prosecutor's Office , 163 Ohio St.3d 337, 2020-Ohio-5371, 170 N.E.3d 768, ¶ 10, quoting Kish at ¶ 17.{¶ 76} The lead opinion would exempt most of DRC's records from the definitio......
  • State ex rel. Myers v. Meyers, 2020-1469
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Ohio
    • June 9, 2022
    ...plead and prove facts clearly establishing the applicability of the [exception]." Welsh-Huggins v. Jefferson Cty. Prosecutor's Office, 163 Ohio St.3d 337, 2020-Ohio-5371, 170 N.E.3d 768, ¶ 27. And because "[exceptions to disclosure under * * * R.C. 149.43 are strictly construed against the ......
  • Sengstock v. City of Twinsburg, 2021-00330PQ
    • United States
    • Court of Claims of Ohio
    • November 17, 2021
    ...identifiable public records from a public office pursuant to R.C. 149.43(B)(1). Welsh-Huggins v. Jefferson Cty. Prosecutor's Office, 163 Ohio St.3d 337, 2020-Ohio-5371, 170 N.E.3d 768, ¶ 33. The defense that a requested item "is not a record" does not assert an exception, and the burden of ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
26 cases
  • League of Women Voters of Ohio v. Ohio Redistricting Comm'n, 2021-1193
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Ohio
    • January 12, 2022
    ...forward with evidence (or burden of production) and the burden of 29 persuasion.'" Welsh-Huggins v. Jefferson Cty. Prosecutor's Office, 163 Ohio St.3d 337, 2020-Ohio-5371, 170 N.E.3d 768, ¶ 20, quoting Chari v. Vore, 91 Ohio St.3d 323, 326, 744 N.E.2d 763 (2001). The standard also defines t......
  • State ex rel. Hogan Lovells U.S., L.L.P. v. Ohio Dep't of Rehab. & Corr., 2019-1511
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Ohio
    • May 26, 2021
    ...integral entitlement of the people, to be preserved with vigilance and vigor.’ " Welsh-Huggins v. Jefferson Cty. Prosecutor's Office , 163 Ohio St.3d 337, 2020-Ohio-5371, 170 N.E.3d 768, ¶ 10, quoting Kish at ¶ 17.{¶ 76} The lead opinion would exempt most of DRC's records from the definitio......
  • State ex rel. Myers v. Meyers, 2020-1469
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Ohio
    • June 9, 2022
    ...plead and prove facts clearly establishing the applicability of the [exception]." Welsh-Huggins v. Jefferson Cty. Prosecutor's Office, 163 Ohio St.3d 337, 2020-Ohio-5371, 170 N.E.3d 768, ¶ 27. And because "[exceptions to disclosure under * * * R.C. 149.43 are strictly construed against the ......
  • Sengstock v. City of Twinsburg, 2021-00330PQ
    • United States
    • Court of Claims of Ohio
    • November 17, 2021
    ...identifiable public records from a public office pursuant to R.C. 149.43(B)(1). Welsh-Huggins v. Jefferson Cty. Prosecutor's Office, 163 Ohio St.3d 337, 2020-Ohio-5371, 170 N.E.3d 768, ¶ 33. The defense that a requested item "is not a record" does not assert an exception, and the burden of ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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