Ruling: Ariz. officials’ personal e-mails aren’t public records
Editor’s note: The Associated Press reported on Aug. 15 that Phoenix Newspapers Inc. planned to appeal the Court of Appeals ruling to the Arizona Supreme Court.
PHOENIX — Government officials’ personal e-mails don’t have to be disclosed
under Arizona’s public-records law even if kept on a taxpayer-supported
computer, a state court has ruled.
Previous Arizona court rulings have found that Arizona’s public-records law
generally requires disclosure of material that documents official activities,
with exemptions for confidentiality, privacy and the best interests of the
The new ruling by the state Court of Appeals notes that the Arizona
public-records law was enacted in 1975, long before e-mail systems became
prevalent in public offices. The court said e-mails are often the equivalent of
telephone calls, not printed paper documents.
“Because of their transitory nature, the content of telephone calls generally
would not be considered a public record,” a three-judge panel in Tucson said in
a unanimous ruling Aug. 4 in href="http://www.apltwo.ct.state.az.us/Decisions/CV20060052_Opinion.pdf">Griffis
v. Pinal County.
“In our view, it defies logic to believe the Legislature intended to require
every state officer or employee, for purposes of disclosure on a public records
request, to record the content of all of his or her personal telephone calls or
to create and maintain documentation of all activities, whether business-related
or strictly personal, in which he or she engages on the job.
“It would be just as illogical to infer any such intent with respect to
electronic forms of communication that are purely personal in nature, even
though e-mails are essentially self-documenting and easily retained.”
The state supreme courts of Florida and Colorado have issued similar rulings,
the Arizona court noted.
Its ruling came in former Pinal County Manager Stan Griffis’ appeal of a
trial court judge’s ruling that 120 e-mails deemed personal should be released
to Phoenix Newspapers Inc., publisher of The Arizona Republic.
Hundreds of other e-mails generated by Griffis during a two-month period
requested by PNI were disclosed because they dealt with official business.
The e-mails in dispute dealt with such topics as online shopping and an
PNI argued that all of the e-mails had to be disclosed to shed light on all
of Griffis’ activities as a public official, but the Court of Appeals said they
had no relation to his official duties and weren’t public records.
However, the court ruled that one of the 120 e-mails did contain material
related to Griffis’ county work and must be released.
The appellate court said it was not deciding whether Griffis’ personal
e-mails had to be released under a Pinal County policy that stated that e-mails
on county computers are not private and are subject to disclosure.
That possible alternative legal approach to the case was not argued in the
trial court and would have to be litigated from scratch, the ruling said.
Peter S. Kozinets, a lawyer for PNI, said the ruling was under review and
that no decision had been made on whether to appeal it to the Arizona Supreme
Griffis retired shortly after being placed on leave by the county Board of
Supervisors in December when a sheriff’s investigation indicated that he spent
about $21,000 of county money on sniper rifles, scopes, ammunition, and
equipment that officials said he kept for personal use.
Pinal County has hired a former Maricopa County prosecutor to investigate