It would interesting – that is to say, depressing – to find out how many tax dollars were spent litigating the obvious point that taxpayers have a right to know what is going on in the jails that they fund.
Why this even needed to be litigated is preposterous. There could have been no doubt that government reports on improvements at the two jails were public records and that the strained effort to conceal them had more to do with protecting politicians than with serving any legitimate governmental need. Yet, it took the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals to declare the obvious and then only because the New York Civil Liberties Union took the matter to court.
It was ludicrous from its beginning when then-Erie County Executive Chris Collins hindered a two-year investigation by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division into conditions at the jails. It sued Erie County after finding evidence of violence and sexual misconduct between staff and inmates, as well as inadequate monitoring to prevent suicides. There have been nine suicides in the county’s two jails since 2003, along with attempts by 15 additional inmates.
The lawsuit was eventually settled, but only after a needlessly long dance between Collins and the Justice Department. Under its terms, the county agreed to hire two independent experts to monitor its jails and file progress reports.
But at the parties’ request, the reports were kept secret. Thus, Erie County taxpayers, who have a direct and compelling interest in the matter, were kept in the dark about whether improvements were actually occurring.
The court was clear, unequivocal and correct. “Today, we hold that the public’s fundamental right of access to judicial documents, guaranteed by the First Amendment, was wrongly denied when the compliance reports in this case were sealed.”
Collins and everyone else connected to the case had to know that the preposterous secrecy agreement would be challenged in court and that it likely would be overturned. We can only speculate on the reasons, but Collins had expended considerable political capital on his unsustainable position that everything was fine in the jails – suicides, assaults, sexual misconduct and even escapes notwithstanding. Plus, he was facing what turned out to be a difficult, and losing, re-election campaign.
Whatever the reason, the interests of taxpayers and of the Constitution were given short shrift. Monday, the Second Circuit set matters right. That’s how they should remain.