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Baker v. Hayden

Court of Appeals of Kansas

April 6, 2018

Linus Baker, Appellant,
v.
Calvin Hayden, et al. Defendants, and Katherine Stocks, in her capacity as Official Custodian of Records for the Tenth Judicial District, Appellee.

         SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

         1. Although Kansas appellate courts generally do not decide moot questions or render advisory opinions, an exception can be made where a moot issue is capable of repetition and raises concerns of public importance.

         2. The most fundamental rule of statutory construction is that the intent of the Legislature governs if that intent can be ascertained. The principles of statutory construction also apply to construction of Kansas Supreme Court rules.

         3. Subject to certain exceptions, the Kansas Open Records Act requires all public records to be open for inspection. Court records are generally open public records. A court record includes an electronic recording documenting a court proceeding.

         4. One exception to the Kansas Open Records Act disclosure requirement is public records, the disclosure of which is specifically prohibited or restricted by Kansas Supreme Court rules.

         5. There is no language in Kansas Supreme Court Rule 362 (2018 Kan. S.Ct. R. 407) that could be construed as specifically prohibiting or restricting access to audio recordings of open court proceedings, which is required by the Kansas Open Records Act to qualify as an exception to disclosure.

         6. There is no language in K.S.A. 2017 Supp. 45-219(a) that could be construed as specifically prohibiting or restricting access to audio recordings of open court proceedings, which is required by the Kansas Open Records Act to qualify as an exception to disclosure.

         7. There is no language in K.S.A. 2017 Supp. 45-221(a)(20) that could be construed as specifically prohibiting or restricting access to audio recordings of open court proceedings, which is required by the Kansas Open Records Act to qualify as an exception to disclosure.

         8. The court shall award costs and a reasonable sum as attorney fees for services rendered in a Kansas Open Records Act action, including proceedings on appeal, if the court finds that the agency's denial of access to the public record was not in good faith and without a reasonable basis in fact or law.

          Appeal from Johnson District Court; Robert W. Fairchild, judge.

          Linus L. Baker, appellant pro se.

          Stephen Phillips, assistant attorney general, and Derek Schmidt, attorney general, for appellee.

          Stephen Douglas Bonney and Nolan Wright, legal intern, of ACLU Foundation of Kansas, of Overland Park, for amicus curiae ACLU Foundation of Kansas.

          Before Arnold-Burger, C.J., Standridge and Bruns, JJ.

          Standridge, J.

         Attorney Linus Baker filed a request under the Kansas Open Records Act (KORA), K.S.A. 45-215 et seq., with Katherine Stocks, the Court Administrator for the Tenth Judicial District, asking to inspect and copy digital audio recordings from court proceedings in a case in which he was neither a party nor counsel for a party. After the request was denied, Baker brought an action against Stocks, alleging that she had violated the KORA as well as his common-law and constitutional rights to access the audio recordings. The district court granted Stocks' motion to dismiss, holding that the recordings were exempt from disclosure under the KORA and specifically under Kansas Supreme Court Rule 362 (2018 Kan. S.Ct. R. 407). But neither the KORA nor Rule 362 specifically prohibit or restrict the disclosure of audio recordings of open court proceedings; thus, the digital audio recordings requested by Baker were open public records under the KORA. Accordingly, we find the district court erred by shielding the audio recordings from disclosure.

         Facts

         On September 2, 2015, Johnson County Sheriff's Department officials went to Baker's residence to serve a temporary order of protection from abuse (PFA) on Baker's adult daughter. When the officials arrived at the scene, one of the sheriffs picked up Baker's granddaughter after mistakenly assuming that she was a child referenced in the custody portion of the PFA order.

         On September 30, 2015, Baker faxed an open records request to the Johnson County District Court, asking to inspect and copy audio files from two open court hearings that had occurred in the PFA case on September 4, 2015, and September 8, 2015. Baker was neither a party in the PFA case nor counsel for a party in the PFA case. After making his request, Baker exchanged a series of phone calls with Stocks, who informed Baker on multiple occasions that audio recordings were exempt from disclosure under the KORA but written transcripts were not; thus, Stocks advised Baker to submit a request for a court reporter to transcribe the audio recordings of the two hearings. When Baker continued to insist that he was entitled to the audio recordings, Chief Judge Kevin P. Moriarty denied Baker's request. Baker e-mailed Stocks to ask for reconsideration of his request, and they exchanged several e-mails, which once again resulted in Stocks informing Baker that the audio recordings were exempt from disclosure under the KORA but written transcripts were not; therefore, Baker should request written transcripts of the proceedings.

         On January 3, 2017, Baker filed a pro se petition against various Johnson County officials, alleging violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2016) and state law claims of trespass, false arrest and imprisonment, assault, and battery based on the September 2, 2015 incident at his residence. Relevant to this appeal, Baker also named Stocks as a defendant, alleging that her refusal to provide him with the requested audio recordings violated: (1) the KORA, (2) Baker's common-law right to judicial records, and (3) his constitutional right to due process and equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and his right to access public information under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Baker requested declaratory and injunctive relief, compensatory damages, attorney fees, and costs.

         In response, Stocks filed a motion to dismiss. Stocks argued, in relevant part, that (1) audio recordings of court hearings were not subject to disclosure under the KORA or Supreme Court rules, (2) Baker had no common-law or constitutional right to access the audio recordings, (3) Baker's request to access the audio recordings was moot because counsel already had provided the recordings to Baker in response to a discovery request, and (4) Baker was not entitled to attorney fees.

         The district court granted Stocks' motion to dismiss. The court found the audio recordings were exempt from disclosure under the KORA and Kansas Supreme Court Rule 362. The court further found that Baker had no constitutional or common-law right to listen to the audio recordings, that Baker's claims were moot because Stocks already had provided Baker with a copy of the requested recordings, and that Baker was not entitled to attorney fees because Stocks' decision to deny Baker's KORA request was made in good faith and therefore was proper. The district court certified its ruling as a final judgment under K.S.A. 2017 Supp. 60-254(b).

         Baker timely appeals. This court permitted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to file a brief as amicus curiae.

         Analysis

         1. Mootness

         The district court held that Baker's claims were moot because Stocks already had provided Baker with the requested audio recordings. A case is moot when the controversy between the parties has ended and any judgment of the court would be ineffective. State ex rel. Slusher v. City of Leavenworth, 285 Kan. 438, 454, 172 P.3d 1154 (2007). As a general rule, Kansas appellate courts do not decide moot questions or render advisory opinions. Skillett v. Sierra, 30 Kan.App.2d 1041, 1046, 53 P.3d 1234 (2002). Because the mootness doctrine is a court-made doctrine and is not jurisdictionally based, it is amenable to exceptions. State v. Montgomery, 295 Kan. 837, Syl. ¶ 2, 286 P.3d 866 (2012). One commonly applied exception is the circumstance where a moot issue is capable of repetition and raises concerns of public importance. Because mootness is a doctrine of court policy, our review of the issue is unlimited. State v. Hilton, 295 Kan. 845, 849, 286 P.3d 871 (2012).

         The parties agree that after Baker filed the present action, Stocks provided him with the requested audio recordings. We find, however, that this fact alone does not render the case moot because the issue here is one that is both capable of repetition and involves public importance. Voluntary cessation of illegal activity may moot litigation if "'(1) it can be said with assurance that there is no reasonable expectation that the alleged violation will recur, and (2) interim relief or events have completely and irrevocably eradicated the effects of the alleged violation.'" See Stano v. Pryor, 52 Kan.App.2d 679, 683, 372 P.3d 427 (2016). Although Stocks ultimately provided Baker with the audio recordings he sought, it appears she only did so pursuant to the rules of discovery. Stocks continues to advance the argument that Baker was not entitled to the recordings under the KORA. Thus, the question of whether audio recordings of open court proceedings are available to the public under the KORA is an issue capable of repetition. In addition to being capable of repetition, this issue involves public importance, meaning "'something more than that the individual members of the public are interested in the decision of the appeal from motives of curiosity or because it may bear upon their individual rights or serve as a guide for their future conduct as individuals.'" Hilton, 295 Kan. at 851. The right of the public to obtain audio recordings of court proceedings clearly involves a matter of public importance. For both of these reasons, we find Baker's claims are not moot.

         2. Motion to dismiss

         Baker argues the district court erred by granting Stocks' motion to dismiss. Specifically, Baker claims that the district court improperly relied on Supreme Court Rule 362 in holding that the recordings were exempt under the KORA and that the court's ruling otherwise violated his common-law and constitutional rights of access to court records. Baker also maintains that he is entitled to attorney fees as a result of Stocks' unlawful denial of access to the recordings. In its amicus curiae brief, the ACLU argues that the public and the press have a common-law right to inspect and obtain copies of electronic recordings of court proceedings.

         a. Stand ...


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