The rumors began circulating late on the morning of Oct. 4. A prominent person in Casper had been arrested on child pornography charges.
That afternoon, local reporters attended the daily court hearing for the newly arrested. They spotted the suspect, flanked by two attorneys. Before journalists could find out the specifics of the case, one of the attorneys stopped the judge from reading out the charges.
By hearing’s end, the reporters knew the man was Larry Clapp, a prominent attorney who had previously served as Casper mayor and a state legislator. To understand the accusations against him, they went to the Natrona County Circuit Court office, seeking the case file.
Normally, such information is available to the public. But on that day, the reporters were rebuffed by a clerk who wouldn’t reveal any information — including why the documents were being kept secret.
Reporters didn’t learn the details about Clapp’s arrest until the Casper-Star-Tribune filed a lawsuit demanding the court release the documents. It was one of several instances in 2012 in which journalists battled government officials over access to records.
The year didn’t produce an abnormally high number of open records fights. But media attorney Bruce Moats, who handled the Clapp case for the Star-Tribune, said he’s hearing more complaints about court records being kept from the public.
“Often, cases are not even on the official docket,” he said. “Over the last couple of years, that’s really increased significantly.”
Most of the disputes involve sexual crimes. In such cases, state law prohibits public employees from releasing names of the accused until their case has reached district court. The names of minor victims are also restricted.
The law is not applied uniformly, Moats explained. Some jurisdictions simply redact identifying information from the records. Others prohibit the release of the entire court file until the case proceeds to district court. At least one court keeps records secret until the case is complete.
Moats acknowledges courts have to balance the public’s right to know with the protection of young victims. But that balance has tipped too far in favor of withholding information, he said.
“The country functions better when the people have access to the truth,” he said. “These court records are the official version of the truth. So we need to be very careful about restricting access to that truth.”
Three months before the Clapp case became public, Glenrock police issued an Amber Alert for a 2-year-old girl who’d been kidnapped from her home. The girl was found alive, and authorities arrested a person in connection with her disappearance. They refused to name the suspect, and the judge in the case closed the initial proceedings to the public.
Authorities identified the defendant, 22-year-old Robert Parks, nearly two weeks later when the case moved to district court. Several media outlets filed suit anyway. They argued the court could have followed the law in a less restrictive fashion, such as blacking out names from public documents.
A district judge agreed state law doesn’t require a blanket closure, said Moats, who is representing the news outlets. A second phase of litigation will determine what a court should do to protect the names of the victim and the accused.
Crime did not spark all of this year’s challenges over public records. In November, the Star-Tribune, Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and The Associated Press sued the University of Wyoming seeking the names of the finalists to replace outgoing President Tom Buchanan.
In the lawsuit, the news organizations claimed the school had no legal standing to keep the names secret. It also argued the public had a legitimate interest in knowing the identities of the people being considered for one of the state’s most important positions.
A few weeks later, the university responded with a counterclaim. The school insisted releasing the finalists’ names would discourage qualified candidates from applying. That harm to the public outweighed the need for transparency, according to the suit.
The case represents a conflict between the state public meetings law and the statute on open records, said Wyoming Press Association Executive Director Jim Angell.
The meetings law gives government officials the ability to keep interviews private. But under the open records law, the finalists’ names would normally be considered public.
“Part of the beauty and part of the drawback of the Wyoming public meetings and open records law is they are so broad,” Angell said. “So you have to seek clarification.”
The lawsuit has yet to be decided. Both parties hope to resolve the matter before a selection committee chose the final candidates.