Friday, September 11, 2009
The Louisiana Supreme Court has ruled that a cable news station (CNN) did not have standing to intervene in a case in which a New Orleans hospital requested the return of property held by the District Attorney's Office. CNN asserted that it had the right to examine the records based on the Louisiana public records act.
In brief, both CNN and the AG argue that any documents obtained from Tenet-Memorial plainly fall within the definition of a public record under the Public Records Act, and, therefore, the AG has a legal duty to maintain copies of all such documents in his file. They further argue this duty overcomes Tenet-Memorial's right to have said copies returned. CNN and the AG also argue that a motion filed pursuant to La. R.S. 15:41 is by nature a civil action that can only be brought in a court of civil jurisdiction, and that, even if a motion for return of seized property can be brought in a criminal court, La. R.S. 15:41 is applicable only to property seized pursuant to a search warrant and specifically inapplicable to documents produced pursuant to a subpoena duces tecum. In opposition, Tenet-Memorial asserts that CNN lacks standing to intervene in this action, La. R.S. 15:41 is a criminal motion that can only be brought in a court of criminal jurisdiction, and La. R.S. 15:41 applies to both [Pg 14] search warrants and subpoenas duces tecum.
We must first consider whether CNN has standing to intervene in Tenet-Memorial's motion for return of property. Tenet-Memorial asserts that CNN was neither a party to the motion for return of property, nor was it made a subject of the court's order. In addition, Tenet-Memorial notes that La. R.S. 15:41 does not contemplate actions by third parties other than those who claim an ownership interest in the seized property. Consequently, Tenet-Memorial concludes that CNN lacks standing to challenge the trial court's order. CNN counters that it has an interest in the motion for return of property because the records at issue qualify as public records and therefore implicate [Pg 15] the public's rights under the Public Records Act.
When addressing a litigant's standing, we have found that the "predicate requirement of standing is satisfied if it can be said that the [litigant] has an interest at stake in litigation which can be legally protected." ... Conversely, a litigant who is not asserting a substantial existing legal right is without standing in court. ... In addition, that a party has the legal capacity to appear in court does not alone define standing; rather, standing is gauged also by the specific statutory or constitutional claims that the party presents and the party's relationship to those claims. ... The standing inquiry requires careful examination of whether a particular litigant is entitled to an adjudication of the particular claims it has asserted. ...
In this case, La. R.S. 44:35 provides for the enforcement of the public's rights under the Public Records Act:A. Any person who has been denied the right to inspect or copy a record under the provisions of this Chapter, either by a final determination of the custodian or by the passage of five days . . . from the date of his request without receiving a final determination in writing by the custodian, may institute proceedings for the issuance of a writ of mandamus, injunctive or declaratory relief, together with attorney's fees, costs and damages as provided for by this Section, in the district court for the parish in which the [Pg 16] office of the custodian is located.
La. R.S. 44:35. La. R.S. 44:35, by its plain language, provides that "any person who has been denied the right to inspect or copy a record" by the action of the "custodian" of those records a cause of action against the "custodian." ...Tenet-Memorial is not the custodian of the public records at issue in these consolidated cases, and is therefore not capable of denying CNN its right to inspect or copy a public record by filing a motion for return of its property. La. R.S. 44:31 and 44:36. Rather, the custodian of the public records at issue in these proceedings is the AG. La. R.S. 44:36. CNN's right of action under the Public Records Act is limited to actions against the custodian of the public records. La. R.S. 44:35. Consequently, CNN's action for enforcement of its rights under the Public Records Act is not by way of intervention against Tenet-Memorial in a motion for return of property filed in an Orleans Parish Criminal District Court because CNN has no substantial legal right in that motion. Rather, CNN's action for enforcement of its rights under the Public Records Act is by way of suit against the AG, in the district court for the parish in which the office of the custodian is located. La. R.S. 44:35. In fact, in these consolidated cases, CNN exercised its rights under the Public Records Act when it filed suit against the AG in the District Court for the Parish of East Baton Rouge. For these reasons, CNN lacks statutory authority and is thus without standing to also exercise that right by intervening in an Orleans Parish Criminal District Court action against an entity that is not the custodian of the public records.
[Pg 17] CNN asserts, however, that it has a right, not only to access the public records, but also to ensure that they are not compromised by the Orleans Parish District Court's order mandating the return of certain documents and copies thereof. The intent of CNN's intervention in this case is thus not to inspect the public records, but rather to maintain what it considers to be public records. However, when the facts alleged provide a remedy to someone, but the litigant who seeks relief is not the person in whose favor the law extends the remedy, that litigant is without standing. ...In this case, the right and responsibility to maintain the public records is within the exclusive statutory authority of the AG....Consequently, CNN cannot gain standing by claiming that it wishes to maintain the integrity of the public records on behalf of the AG.
In addition, when ruling on standing, it is both appropriate and necessary to look to the substantive issues to determine whether there is a logical nexus between the status asserted and the claim sought to be adjudicated.... Here, CNN asserts a status that necessarily belongs to the AG: that of custodian of the alleged public records at issue in this case. However, CNN is without statutory authority to take up this mantle on behalf of the AG. As such, CNN also asserts that it has status as a person who has been denied the right to inspect or copy a public record. Nonetheless, CNN has asserted this status in an action for return of property. The claim sought to be adjudicated in this proceeding is that of the return of property. This claim has no logical nexus to CNN's asserted status, which is that of a party who has been denied the right to inspect or copy a public record. In order to be entitled to maintain its action, [Pg 18] CNN must have had a direct and present interest in the motion for return of property; it is insufficient that CNN had a remote or indirect interest therein....
For these reasons, we find that CNN lacked standing to intervene in the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court proceeding, and we hereby dismiss CNN from that portion of this case.
Read the entire opinion here.