On Monday June 30 the Colorado Supreme Court decided Benefield v. Colorado Republican Party, affirming that members of the public who win access to public documents after going to court to do it are entitled to recover attorney's fees and costs under the Colorado Open Record Act (CORA).
The case has its roots in a 2006 CORA request by the Colorado Republican Party seeking access to responses to a survey issued by various members of the Colorado House of Representatives soliciting opinions from their constituents. Through a legal challenge, the Colorado Republican Party won access to almost 60% of the documents they had requested. However, a Denver District Court denied the Republican Party's motion to recover legal fees, reasoning that because the Republican Party had not gained access to the entire body of documents, it did not qualify as a winner or 'prevailing applicant'.
Colorado Common Cause joined with Colorado Ethics Watch, the Colorado Press Association, and the Independence Institute to submit an amicus brief in support of the Colorado Republican Party's position. We argued that the District Court's holding would cause a chilling effect on CORA requests because record seekers would be unable to recover the costs of gaining access to improperly held public documents if part of their request was denied. Furthermore, the ultimate impact of the District Court's decision meant the "public will receive less information about what their government is doing, deepening the very cynicism CORA was intended to alleviate," and heightened the opportunity for "government corruption and incompetence" to go undetected.
In a 5-2 ruling the Colorado Supreme Court agreed, holding that CORA "mandates an award of costs and reasonable attorney fees in favor of any person who applies for and receives an order from the district court requiring a custodian to permit inspection of a public record." This holding is a triumph for transparency and will help the people of Colorado hold government institutions and officials accountable.
Office: Colorado Common Cause
Issues: Government Accountability