The Sunshine Act (HB87) proposed a state constitutional amendment to guarantee the public the right of access to public records. The original version applied to the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government. But the judicial branch was stripped from the bill in committee. Some lawyers said they were concerned the bill would open too many court records, including those with trade secrets and other damaging information.
There’s another reason behind all of this. It deals with a court case going back to 1996 when a doctor filed suit against Presbyterian Hospital in Charlotte. The hospital basically locked the doctor out after a mistake during a surgical procedure. The doctor filed suit and wanted to see all peer review records of the hospital. He thought he could use them to show his discipline was unusually harsh. But the court ordered all records sealed and closed the court hearings to the public. The press screamed but the State Supreme Court upheld the lower court.
The General Assembly then passed a law restoring the public’s access to all documents offered as evidence in trials. Now there’s a fear the hospitals may want to have that law repealed and it would take a simple majority vote in the legislature to get that done. The Sunshine Act throws up a hurdle against that strategy by requiring a super majority vote to approve any exception to access to public records.
The bill was discussed on the House floor last week. Democratic Representative Bill Faison offered an amendment turning the proposal into a legislative statute instead of a constitutional amendment. but the bill sponsor Republican Representative Steve LaRoque had any further debate postponed until Tuesday.
There may well be an attempt at that time to put the judicial branch back into the bill.