JAMES E. BOREN
EARL B. TAYLOR
SUPERVISORY WRITS TO THE TWENTY-SEVENTH JUDICIAL DISTRICT
COURT FOR THE PARISH OF ST. LANDRY
HUGHES, J. [*]
case presents the res nova issue of whether an attorney,
representing an incarcerated felon, is subject to the
provisions of La. R.S. 44:31.1, when making a public records
request to obtain information relative to a potential
post-conviction relief application. Both the district court
and the appellate court ruled in the affirmative. For the
following reasons, we reverse and remand with instructions.
AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
James E. Boren was retained by Stephan M. Bergeron to review
his 2013 rape convictions to determine if there were any
valid bases for post-conviction relief. Mr. Boren forwarded a written request on
June 30, 2015 to the St. Landry District Attorney's
office, seeking to review and copy records related to Mr.
Bergeron's conviction under the Louisiana Public Records
Law, La. R.S. 44:1 et seq. Assistant District Attorney Donald
J. Richard replied to the request, in a July 14, 2015 letter,
requesting Mr. Boren disclose the nature of his relationship
with Mr. Bergeron, i.e., whether Mr. Boren was "acting
in any capacity in representing him in any post-conviction
proceedings" and, if so, asking Mr. Boren to "set
forth the grounds for post-conviction relief, " along
with his "personal representation that none of those
grounds were raised on appeal." Mr. Boren responded by
letter dated July 21, 2015, disclosing that he was retained
by Mr. Bergeron to investigate his 2013 rape convictions to
determine if there were any valid claims for post-conviction
relief and that he was seeking access to files of the St.
Landry Parish District Attorney's Office regarding that
prosecution. Mr. Boren was thereafter notified by Mr.
Richard's July 24, 2015 letter that his "response
does not meet the requirements previously cited in our
response letter dated July 14, 2015. Therefore, your request
is DENIED." (Emphasis original.)
Boren then filed a "Petition for Writ of Mandamus and
Review" on August 10, 2015, in the Twenty-Seventh
Judicial District Court, pursuant to La. Const. Art. XII,
§ 3, La. C.C.P. arts. 3862-63, and La. R.S. 44:35. Mr.
Boren also sought to collect from the defendant/custodian
attorney fees, costs, and damages, under La. R.S. 44:35, for
their failure to comply with his public records request.
an August 31, 2015 hearing, the district court denied Mr.
Boren's petition for a writ of mandamus. A subsequent
writ application to the appellate court was denied. Boren
v. Taylor, 15-0911 (La.App. 3 Cir. 11/18/15)
(unpublished). On Mr. Boren's application to this court,
we granted the writ and remanded to the appellate court for
briefing, argument, and full opinion. Boren v.
Taylor, 15-2322 (La. 3/14/16) (unpublished writ action).
On remand, the appellate court affirmed the district court
ruling. Boren v. Taylor, 15-0911 (La.App. 3 Cir.
10/26/16), 206 So.3d 892. Thereafter, this court granted the
plaintiff's writ application. Boren v. Taylor,
16-2078 (La. 1/23/17), 215 So.3d 262.
Boren asks this court to reverse the appellate court
decision, contending, in essence: that the provisions of La.
R.S. 44:31.1 apply only to an incarcerated individual, not to
an attorney; that La. R.S. 44:31.1 should be strictly
construed so as not to diminish his right of access to public
records because of his attorney-client relationship with an
incarcerated individual; that the public records custodian
(here, the district attorney) exceeded his authority to
question a person seeking public records access beyond that
allowed by La. R.S. 44:32(A); and that he is entitled to an
award of attorney fees, costs, and damages, pursuant to La.
public's right to access public records is granted by
Louisiana Constitution, Article XII, Section 3, which
provides: "No person shall be denied the right to
observe the deliberations of public bodies and examine public
documents, except in cases established by law."
legislature, by enacting the Public Records Law, La. R.S.
44:1 et seq., sought to guarantee, in the most expansive and
unrestricted way possible, the right of the public to inspect
and reproduce those records that the law deems public.
See Landis v. Moreau, 00-1157, p. 4 (La. 2/21/01),
779 So.2d 691, 694-95; Title Research Corporation v.
Rausch, 450 So.2d 933, 937 (La. 1984). In implementation
of this right, La. R.S. 44:31(A) states, "Providing
access to public records is a responsibility and duty of the
appointive or elective office of a custodian and his
employees." Further, "any person of the age of
majority may inspect, copy, or reproduce any public record,
" except "as otherwise specifically provided by
law." La. R.S. 44:31(B). A public records custodian must
"present any public record to any person of the age of
majority who so requests, " and the custodian
"shall make no inquiry of any person who applies for a
public record, except an inquiry as to the age and
identification of the person . . . ." La. R.S. 44:32(A).
legislature has further recognized that "it is essential
to the operation of a democratic government that the people
be made aware of all exceptions, exemptions, and limitations
to the laws pertaining to public records." La. R.S.
44:4.1(A). In order to foster the people's awareness, the
legislature declared that "all exceptions, exemptions,
and limitations to the laws pertaining to public records
shall be provided for in [the Public Records Law] or the
Constitution of Louisiana."
Id. Any exception, exemption, and
limitation to the laws pertaining to public records not
provided for in the Public Records Law or in the Constitution
of Louisiana has no effect. Id.
the Public Records Law must be construed liberally in favor
of free and unrestricted access to public documents, and
access to public records can be denied only when a law
specifically and unequivocally provides otherwise. Title
Research Corporation v. Rausch, 450 So.2d at 937.
See also DeSalvo v. State, 624 So.2d 897,
902 (La. 1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1117, 114
S.Ct. 1067, 127 L.Ed.2d 386 (1994); Landis v.
Moreau, 779 So.2d at 695. Whenever there is doubt as to
whether the public has the right of access to certain
records, the doubt must be resolved in favor of the
public's right to see; to allow otherwise would be an
improper and arbitrary restriction on the public's
constitutional rights. In re Matter Under
Investigation, 07-1853, p. 25 (La. 7/1/09), 15 So.3d
972, 989; Capital City Press v. East Baton Rouge Parish
Metropolitan Council, 96-1979, p. 4 (La. 7/1/97), 696
So.2d 562, 564; Title Research Corporation v.
Rausch, 450 So.2d at 936.
case, Mr. Boren's public records request was denied by
the defendant/custodian on the basis of the exception set