Victory for public’s right to know in CA Supreme Court decision

The California Supreme Court ruled unanimously last week that the Department of Public Health must release, in full, public records relating to violations against patients at state-run facilities for people with developmental disabilities.

“It’s a complete victory for patients, families and the public, who are now going to get key information about serious violations of law and even egregious abuse,” said CIR lawyer Duffy Carolan of Jassy Vick Carolan LLP, and FAC Board Member told Reveal News. “Through access to these citations, the public is going to hold the Department of Public Health, the Department of Developmental Services and the facilities accountable for what transpired at the facilities.”

The case originated in 2011 when CIR reporter Ryan Gabrielson, working on a series of stories about police failure to protect developmentally disabled people in state institutions, sought records of citations for serious violations issued to seven institutions by the Department of Public Health. However, he received only 55 heavily redacted citations going back five years.

In January 2012, CIR’s lawyers filed a petition with Sacramento County Superior Court against the Dept. of Public Health arguing that the public was entitled to access the full documents and that only patient’s name need be withheld according to the terms of the 1973 Long-Term-Care Act.

As the Supreme Court opinion explains, the Department of Public Health argued that a 1967 state law requires treatment records to be kept confidential to protect the privacy of mental patients.

The court said the 1973 law was more specific than the 1967 statute, guaranteeing public access to citations for wrongdoing at state long-term care centers, including mental health centers. The law required only the patients’ names be concealed.The trial court sided with CIR and ruled in favor of full disclosure, and the appeal court upheld the lower court.  On February 19, the CA Supreme Court agreed with the earlier decisions, ruling that the Department of Public Health must release the citations in full, with the exception of patient names.

Additional sources:

State abuse records will be public after Supreme Court sides with CIR  Reveal News, CIR

State must reveal mental health records in full, court rules, SFGate