Tonkon Torp Obtains Oregon Supreme Court Victory for ACLU

Tonkon Torp attorneys Steven Wilker, Sarah Einowski, and Gwen Griffith, working on behalf of the ACLU of Oregon, recently won a big victory in Oregon Supreme Court that strengthens the public’s right to records.

The decision, the first in many years by the Oregon Supreme Court regarding Oregon’s Public Records Law, reinforces the strong public interest in disclosure and makes it clear that if the interests in disclosure and non-disclosure are equal, then disclosure is required. It also makes it clear that when a public body relies on an abstract generalized legal interest in confidentiality (without specific evidence supporting confidentiality in the particular case), the abstract generalized interest will be given less weight in the analysis. Significantly, the decision also concludes that the determination as to whether the public interest requires disclosure is a legal determination (not an issue of fact), which makes the determination subject to effective appellate review.

In ruling in favor of the ACLU, the Supreme Court remanded with instructions to the Circuit Court to order the City of Eugene to release the records relating to an incident in 2008 in which a Eugene police officer twice “tased” protestor Ian Van Ornum while he was prone on the ground at an anti-pesticide rally. Background on the case can be read here.

Tonkon Torp attorneys have worked with the ACLU on the case since 2009. Gwen Griffith was involved in the initial request for the documents, and when the City refused, Steven Wilker took over and petitioned for review to the District Attorney. When the DA declined to require disclosure of the investigative reports, Wilker  filed suit in Lane County Circuit Court. After a one-day trial, the court declined to require the release of the records. Wilker then briefed and argued the appeal at the Oregon Court of Appeals. Undeterred by the Court of Appeals’ decision affirming the trial court, Wilker filed a petition for review to the Oregon Supreme Court. After the petition was granted, Einowski joined the team to help prepare the brief on the merits in the Oregon Supreme Court. Wilker argued the case in the Oregon Supreme Court on March 10.

Amidst a national conversation on police conduct, the ruling reinforces the strong public interest in transparency and disclosure regarding both the use of force by officers and the process by which allegations of police misconduct are reviewed by a Citizen Review Board.