Law and Government

Georgia Supreme Court Hands Citizens Two Major Victories

Nearly everyday we hear about a new study claiming to have found evidence bolstering a certain product. The problem is that many of these studies are funded by particular industries with a bias towards reaching a certain finding. This doesn’t necessarily mean the final results will be inaccurate, but it does mean that the study could very well be designed to produce favorable or misleading results. Several days ago the National Institutes of Health decided to end a study looking at how alcohol affects the cardiovascular system after a task force determined the alcohol industry had too much influence over the scientists. This isn’t too surprising since the alcohol industry was heavily funding the study.

In 2013, Dr. Jennifer Lewis Priestly with Kennesaw State University entered into a contract with Consumer Credit Research Foundation (CCRF) to study the effects of payday loans on the financial health of consumers. Consumer Credit Research Foundation just happens to be a payday lending industry-funded group. After the study was published in 2015, the Campaign for Accountability sent a request under Georgia’s Open Records Act to Kennesaw State seeking documents related to the study for the purpose of exposing the financial interests behind the study. When Kennesaw State informed CCRF that they were going to disclose the documents, CCRF sued to prevent the disclosure of those materials.

A Unanimous Ruling for Transparency

On Monday, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Kennesaw State is not obligated to release the requested documents, but it’s not prohibited from releasing the documents either. While Georgia’s Open Records Act requires the disclosure of all public documents, it also has about 50 exemptions. One of those exemptions is related to records produced “in the conduct of, or as the result of, study or research” by certain state agencies including public universities.

The Consumer Credit Research Foundation argued that because the documents related to the payday lending study fell within that exemption, Kennesaw State was prohibited from disclosing them. The Supreme Court, though, declined to read the statute this way. Instead, the court said that the most common sense reading of the statute allows Kennesaw State to claim the exemption and refuse disclosure, but nothing in the statute prohibits it from disclosing the documents if it chooses.

While this is a significant victory for transparency and openness, we should remember that Georgia’s Open Records Act still allows state agencies to refuse disclosure of certain documents. However, now that the Supreme Court has ruled that agencies are permitted, but not required to disclose certain materials, the government has no excuse if the public exerts pressure.

Supreme Court Makes It Easier to Sue Georgia Power

In another victory for Georgians, the Supreme Court made it easier to sue Georgia Power for overcharging. Several consumers joined in a class-action suit against Georgia Power, alleging that they consistently collected municipal franchise fees in excess of what was approved by the Georgia Public Service Commission. Georgia Power, though, claimed that the suit could not go forward because the consumers had not exhausted their administrative remedies. In plain English, this means the consumers are not entitled to sue in court until they have taken up their issues with state agencies and lost.

The Georgia Supreme Court rejected this argument, holding that while the Public Service Commission has exclusive jurisdiction to determine rates, courts can certainly hear allegations that Georgia Power was not correctly applying those rates to customers. In contrast to some recent Georgia Court of Appeals decisions barring tenants from accessing the courts, the Supreme Court on Monday resoundly gave consumers an easier path to having their complaints heard in court.

 


 

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