All who walk in the main entrance to the Nebraska State Capitol enter beneath the following words, forever etched in stone: “The salvation of the state is watchfulness of the citizen.”

However, Hartley Burr Alexander, from whom that quote originates, gave no suggestion for what to do when the state opposes the justified watchfulness of its citizenry. In the most recent case, regarding state officials’ incorrect insistence that information about its lethal injection drugs are exempted from public records laws, Nebraskans were forced to turn to a lawsuit in pursuit of answers.

The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the state, hoping to obtain details surrounding the substances scheduled to be used in the execution of convicted killer Jose Sandoval. A cadre of media outlets, including the Journal Star, has petitioned to join this fight for transparency. And though the Journal Star editorial board was not involved in the newspaper’s decision, it wholeheartedly endorses this effort.

In his letter rejecting the Journal Star’s public records request, Corrections Director Scott Frakes cites exemptions under three sections of Nebraska Code that, respectively, shield “the identity of all members of the execution team,” designate that only records explicitly protected in statute can be excluded from public release and protect attorneys’ work product and attorney-client privilege.

Nowhere in those three sections – or anywhere in the state’s sprawling, 13-volume legal code – is anything that expressly bars the release of information related to the execution drugs. Invoking those exemptions via a blanket denial to all inquests, rather than the justifiable use of redacting legally protected details, is nothing more than a smokescreen to keep secret public records that may be inconvenient.

Worse yet is that a bill allowing information related to the state’s lethal injection drugs to remain private is pending before the Nebraska Legislature. LB661, introduced and prioritized by Sen. John Kuehn of Heartwell, advanced out of committee last year and will almost surely be debated again when senators reconvene in January.

Until and unless this affront to Nebraskans’ right to know about their government’s actions passes, no public records exemption exists regarding the substances used to carry out capital punishment. If the state is merely stalling, waiting for this measure to pass before trotting it out as a defense, that willful ignorance to the obligation it owes Nebraskans is unconscionable.

Particularly in light of the state’s previous high-profile embarrassments to obtain execution drugs from India, in which officials never received what they bought, Nebraskans deserve answers. Nebraska code notes that open records laws “shall be liberally construed” on fiscal matters, including invoices, purchase orders and requisitions involving public funds.

The state officials opposing this transparency need only look at the Capitol’s north door to remember to whom it is they are accountable – the very citizens being denied information to which they’re entitled under the law.

— Journal Star, Dec. 20, 2017

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