There’s always some wiggle room, some point to argue, some space for appeal, when government bases its actions on court rulings.
When an issue is open to interpretation — as the public’s right to obtain information from the government often is — it’s important to remove the ambiguity and flexibility of a court ruling by passing a law that removes all doubt.
That’s why it’s important for Gov Kathy Hochul to sign a bill (A5469/S0190) that will codify a 2014 Appellate Court ruling that makes the names of retirees eligible for state pension benefits available to the public under the state Freedom of Information Law.
The taxpayers of the state of New York pay billions of dollars into these pension funds, and as such have a right to know who is receiving that money.
It’s a simple premise. But the courts haven’t always agreed that the names are subject to disclosure. And unions representing these retirees have in the past waged expensive court battles to withhold the public disclosure of the recipients’ names.
Back in 2014, the Empire Center of Public Policy successfully sued to ensure that the names of retirees receiving public pensions through the New York State Teachers’ Retirement System and the Teachers’ Retirement System of the City of New York must be disclosed.
In the past, the courts protected the release of the names on the basis that they could be used to solicit retirees in some way.
In that argument, they said if the government disclosed the names of the pensioners, that would make it easier for solicitors to track down home addresses – thereby creating an “unwarranted invasion of privacy.”
But in the 2014 ruling, the Appellate Court decided that assumption was speculative.
The Empire Center wasn’t seeking home addresses and was not involved in fund-raising or solicitation. It just wanted the names.
In future requests for retiree information, the courts would consider the purpose of the request, as they do now, and could legitimately deny a request based on FOIL’s existing privacy protections.
This bill clarifies an important court ruling by removing any ambiguity that might arise from FOIL requests and confirms for retirees and their representatives that only the names of retirees – not their addresses or the names of their beneficiaries – are subject to public disclosure.
Sometimes, lawmakers have to take court rulings and confirm them in law.
That’s what they did here.
The governor should sign the bill.