If you were a government official, how far would you go to push back against a law you disagreed with?
Would you openly defy the law?
Would you be willing to violate your oath of office?
Would you go so far as to badger those who favored enforcement of the law?
Until today, those questions earned a shameful “yes” in the Newtown clerk’s office, where officials for six months illegally withheld access to death certificates after deciding their personal sense of right and wrong trumped the statutory demands of their office.
This morning, the clerks finally relented, turning over dozens of heartbreaking photocopies bearing witness to the sad duty of doctors in the Chief State Medical Examiner’s Office to apply, over and over, a clinical description to the violence that stole so many innocent lives.
As I write this, a reporter is driving back from Newtown with the documents. When they arrive, they’ll be somberly analyzed for anything that might improve our understanding of that awful day – though it’s not likely the sparse documents will do much to peel back the mystery. We will wince at the now-familiar names, and think of the parents that we have come to know, but don’t really know. We’ll do our best to avoid flashes of the terror inside that school. And then the documents will be filed, along with hundreds or thousands of other sheets of paper amassed in our investigation and coverage of this obviously important, internationally significant story. [Update: Courant editors tell me that, following a review of the death certificates, no story will be written based on their content.]
That is what we will do with the records. And the town should have given them to us as soon as we asked last December.
The clerks offered little pretense that their obstructionist stance was legally permissible. Indeed in written testimony to the legislature, Aileen Nosal, Newtown’s assistant town clerk and assistant registrar of vital statistics, acknowledged: “according to current law, these death certificates are public information.”
So Town Clerk Debbie Aurelia and at least some of her underlings took it upon themselves to break the law, flatly refusing to do what the legislature and the courts have ordered.
“Since the tragedy in Newtown,” Assistant Town Clerk Renee Weimann told the legislature, “I’ve been adamant about keeping the death records for those victims unavailable to the public, especially the press.”
The clerks appeared astounded that anyone but close relatives ever seeks to review death certificates. In fact, epidemiologists, journalists and other researchers have been analyzing death records for hundreds of years. It is almost unfathomable that someone who works in the vital records arena wouldn’t know that, and apparently knew nothing of a key Connecticut court case on public access to death records or an important Freedom of Information Commission Advisory Opinion laying out the obligation of local officials in response to requests for copies of death certificates.
At the Courant, death records have proved critical in stories showing that hospitals were concealing deadly medical errors, and in a series just a few months ago linking neglect to the deaths of scores of developmentally disabled individuals under state supervision.
The clerks wanted the law on access to death certificates changed, and had they succeeded, it would have made it harder to hold institutions accountable when they fail to protect the vulnerable. Nevertheless, if the law was amended, my fellow journalists and I would have acknowledged the authority of the legislature. We would have obeyed the law.
No matter how well-intentioned the clerks may have been, none of us – and certainly not a government official – gets to pick and choose which laws we obey. As with the clerks, there are portions of the state’s freedom-of-information laws to which I strongly object. It’s outrageous, for example, that taxpayers who provide billions of dollars in salaries for the state’s public school teachers – including my wife – are barred by law from seeing routine performance evaluations.
That secrecy is bad public policy. The law ought to be changed.
Is that reason enough for me to hack into a school computer and take what I want, since, after all, I know I’m in the right?
One of the sad ironies here is that the death certificates contain little that the clerks, or anyone else, had reason to fear releasing. But once the media came calling, a line in the sand was drawn and the vilification began.
State Rep. Dan Carter, whose district includes part of Newtown, said releasing the death certificates “will only fuel the painful media circus in Newtown” – as though the pain in Newtown emanated from the barrel of a pen.
With police helicopters in the air and scores of heavily armed officers clutching assault rifles, the grounds of the Sandy Hook firehouse on Dec. 14 must surely have been a disturbing scene to the panicked children and parents. I have yet to hear it described as a “police circus.”
But the media, of course, make an exceptionally convenient target, as they have for thousands of years. While society has evolved, the concept of killing the messenger remains strangely appealing.
State Rep. Mitch Bolinsky piled on, calling reporters seeking the death records “jackals.” And months later he asserted that Aurelia’s refusal to release the death certificates did not violate state law because his bill that would change the rules was up for debate in the legislature.
“I would argue that she is well within her rights and I support what she’s doing,” he said.
Bolinsky may indeed have supported what Aurelia was doing, but as a lawmaker with his own oath of office, he cannot seriously have been under the impression that government officials are authorized to break a current law so long as it’s possible they won’t be breaking a future law.
Nevertheless, the legislative session adjourned last week, and our elected leaders ultimately rebuffed the efforts of Aurelia and others, passing a law that put restrictions on access to some information about Newtown, but not the death certificates.
So the democratic process had run its course. But the clerks still weren’t quite ready to obey the law.
When reporters returned to obtain the records withheld six months earlier, the clerk’s office applied a level of heightened and inappropriate scrutiny that would have made the IRS blush.
Forms were rejected if the request was made in the name of a media outlet rather than an individual, and requesters were required to list their names and home addresses. Clerks demanded to know what the journalists intended to do with the information.
None of that is legal.
“There is no statutory provision requiring a requester to give his or her name or address (unless, of course, the requester asks that the documents be mailed) as a condition precedent to inspecting or receiving a copy of a death or marriage certificate,” the state’s Freedom of Information Commission wrote more than two decades ago. “Nor is there a similar requirement that a requester state his or her relationship to the subject of the record or to state the reason for the request.”
Those words were written after a long-ago controversy in which some local clerks were intimating that death records were available only to immediate family members. The commission made it clear that that wasn’t the case, and that clerks had no latitude over whether or not to obey the law as written.
“It is the Commission’s opinion that it would constitute a violation of the FOI Act … for any registrar of vital statistics either to dishonor a request to inspect or copy death or marriage certificates or to discourage a requester from asserting his her right to such records. Indeed, the failure to comply with the law in this respect would be a violation of a public official’s sacred trust to faithfully discharge, according to law, the duties of his or her office.”
In Newtown last week, employees in the clerk’s office discharged the duties of their office by badgering journalists lawfully doing their jobs. Indeed, employees so mistreated a young reporter from the Courant that it took a call to the town’s lawyer to secure an apology and an assurance that the antics would stop.
The clerks in Newtown, and their many supporters, are undoubtedly proud of their streak of civil disobedience. They shouldn’t be. Newtown knows as well as any town in America the devastating toll exacted when the rule of law falls apart. How dishonorable of the clerks to react to an insane burst of lawlessness by embracing months of lawlessness all their own.