- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 19, 2016

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Indiana lawmakers can continue withholding their correspondence with lobbying groups and businesses from the public under a ruling Tuesday by the state Supreme Court.

The decision comes in a lawsuit filed by consumer advocacy groups seeking emails between Republican Rep. Eric Koch of Bedford and utility companies about his unsuccessful push last year to cut payments for excess electricity generated by home solar power systems.

The court said in a 4-1 ruling that the General Assembly is covered by the state public records law, but that ordering the release of the correspondence violates the state constitution’s separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches of government.

“Because the issue before the court would require invasion into a core function of the legislative branch, this court declines to exercise its jurisdiction,” Justice Steven David wrote.

Legislative leaders have argued that they sought to withhold the emails in order to protect the privacy of correspondence between lawmakers and their constituents.

The groups seeking the release of the emails - Citizens Action Coalition, Common Cause Indiana and the Washington-based Energy and Policy Institute - maintained during March 17 arguments before the court that the public is entitled to know about communications between interest groups and legislators.

The Supreme Court ruling said the General Assembly has the discretion to determine what qualifies as the work product of legislators and their staff members.

Kerwin Olson, executive director of the Indianapolis-based Citizens Action Coalition, called the court’s ruling a significant blow to transparency in legislative actions and said it expands a 1990s court decision that the General Assembly has cited in turning down public records requests.

Olson said he could understand the reason for privacy of correspondence between lawmakers, their attorneys, staff members and constituents, but that it shouldn’t go further than that.

“To protect communications with lobbyists outside the Statehouse is absolutely absurd,” he said.

Justice Robert Rucker wrote in his dissent that the court’s decision was premature because the justices didn’t hear arguments on the merits of the work-product exemption.

The Indianapolis law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister has been paid at least $160,000 from the Legislature’s general budget to handle the lawsuit, according to state records.

Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said the court’s decision will protect people who contact their legislators for help.

“This communication has long been treated as legislative work product and we appreciate our state’s highest court leaving that long-standing practice in place,” he said in a statement.

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