Kentucky legislature can’t block newspaper’s appeal to see sex harassment records
By John Cheves, Lexington Herald-Leader
The Kentucky Supreme Court handed the Lexington Herald-Leader a significant victory Thursday in its open records battle for documents related to sexual harassment allegations inside the state legislature.
The high court upheld the Franklin Circuit Court’s right to hear an appeal by the newspaper for records from a sexual harassment complaint filed in 2015 against state Rep. Jim Stewart III, R-Flat Lick. In its ruling, the high court said legislators do not have the sole right to decide Open Records Act appeals within their branch of government, avoiding the judicial scrutiny that other state agencies must face.
Stewart was accused of harassing a legislative staffer in a complaint lodged with the Legislative Research Commission in 2015, according to an internal House Republican memo obtained by the Herald-Leader. Allegations of improper sexual behavior have been leveled in recent years against at least a half-dozen Kentucky legislators, including former House Speaker Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, who resigned his leadership post as a result.
The LRC refused to produce the records about Stewart after the Herald-Leader requested them. It then filed motions in Franklin Circuit Court and then the Kentucky Court of Appeals to prevent the circuit court from ruling on a lawsuit the newspaper filed in an effort to get the documents.
The LRC — which is made up of legislative leaders, including Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, and House Speaker David Osborne, R-Prospect — should have the final word on open records decisions within the legislative branch, the LRC argued.
The Supreme Court disagreed Thursday in a decision by Deputy Chief Justice Lisabeth T. Hughes. The high court said the legislature clearly has written the law to award itself the right to handle its own Open Records Act responses and the initial round of appeals, as compared to most other state agencies, where the Office of the Attorney General typically hears the initial appeals.
But after that, the courts are the proper place for an aggrieved party to appeal, Hughes wrote.
“The Franklin Circuit Court has subject-matter jurisdiction to adjudicate the underlying case arising from the Herald-Leader’s legislative records request,” Hughes wrote.
The case now returns to Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd.
During the 2019 legislative session, state Rep. Jason Petrie, R-Elkton, filed a bill that would have rewritten state law specifically to establish the LRC as the final word on open records matters within the legislative branch, but Petrie’s bill stalled in the House.