Appellate panel rules in favor of The Advocate in records suit

A panel of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal in Baton Rouge provided no safe haven Friday for the LSU system’s efforts to keep secret records of its search for a new president. That search ended in March with the selection of F. King Alexander, former president of California State University in Long Beach, Calif.

The appellate panel — Circuit Judges John T. Pettigrew, Mitchell R. Theriot and Ernest Drake — did not alter a recent judgment by state District Judge Janice Clark. In April, Clark ruled that the records are public and must be surrendered to Capital City Press LLC, owner of The Advocate.

LSU officials had denied Advocate reporter Koran Addo’s request for records of the system’s search for a new leader and the names of the 35 semifinalists.

After Clark’s decision, LSU went to the 1st Circuit, and the appellate panel’s decision was terse: “Writ denied.”

Attorneys for both sides disagreed Friday as to what happens next in the public records dispute.

Jimmy R. Faircloth Jr., an Alexandria attorney for LSU, said the system’s request to the 1st Circuit “was not an appeal.”

Faircloth said LSU asked the 1st Circuit to take over the case when Clark did not immediately rule on the issues of what damages and attorney fees must be paid by LSU as a result of her finding that the requested information constitutes public records.

The 1st Circuit panel, Faircloth insisted, essentially said Friday: “Go back and get a final decision (from Judge Clark).”

Faircloth said LSU now will return to Clark’s court for her decisions on damages and attorney fees.

“The bottom line is LSU will get its chance to appeal,” Faircloth insisted.

Not unless LSU appeals to an even higher court, said a newspaper attorney.

The question of whether records of LSU’s search for a president are public documents has been answered by Clark and the 1st Circuit, said Lori Mince, a New Orleans attorney for Capital City Press.

“This is very good news, and we are thrilled,” Mince said. “The 1st Circuit says: ‘We’re declining to reverse Judge Clark (on the public records issue).”

Mince said LSU now faces a new decision: “Either release the records or ask the Louisiana Supreme Court to get involved.”

Added Mince: “It’s quite clear that public bodies cannot select their leaders in secret. LSU can’t pick a president for the LSU system in secret. You just can’t do that.”

Mince agreed with Faircloth that, “We will have to go back to Judge Clark to decide the issues of damages and attorney fees.”

But she insisted: “LSU was asking the 1st Circuit to reverse Judge Clark (on the public records issue), and (the 1st Circuit) refused to do so. The 1st Circuit denied those requests.”