Law Professor Jeff Dobbins weighs in on Oregon's public records law

by Patrick Riedling,

  • Associate Professor Jeffrey C. Dobbins
    Jeffrey C. Dobbins, associate professor of law and executive director of the Oregon Law Commission at Willamette University College of Law.

Civil procedure expert and Willamette University Associate Professor of Law Jeffrey Dobbins commented in a Statesman-Journal (SJ) article that reported on a recent judicial opinion for an ongoing disagreement concerning the state’s public records law.

In response to the public records request from The Oregonian—the state’s largest newspaper, Cylvia Hayes—the fiancée of former Gov. John Kitzhaber—sued the media organization in an attempt to block the release of her personal emails. Hayes maintains that she wasn't a public official, she and Kitzhaber weren't married, she was not an employee of the state, and that she was not subject to public records law.

The court disagreed. Circuit Court Judge Tracy A. Prall issued the opinion letter on May 25, 2016 that ruled Hayes must pay The Oregonian $127,760 in court and legal fees associated with her unsuccessful lawsuit.

In the SJ article, Dobbins said the circuit court's opinion letter from the Third Judicial District is not yet final. According to the opinion letter, The Oregonian has 14 days to prepare a judgment that the court will sign. The ruling is made official and can only be appealed after the court has signed it.

Hayes says she will appeal the decision.

Dobbins also commented that the size of the award, and given its context and the fact it was awarded against an individual, strikes him as quite unusual. “The Court of Appeals is likely to look at it with particular care.”

He went on to say that there is no precedent in Oregon law where an individual claiming they were not a public entity has had to defend against a public records request like this one.

Typically, according to Dobbins, when a Court of Appeals looks at an award this size, it might ask whether the trial court abused its discretion. Trial courts are given a fair amount of discretion in how much to award defendants, in this case, The Oregonian, because the party that wins the case often wins its court costs as well.

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About Jeffrey C. Dobbins

Jeffrey C. Dobbins is an associate professor of law and executive director of the Oregon Law Commission at Willamette University College of Law, where he teaches Federal Courts, Administrative Law and seminars in specialized areas of civil procedure. His scholarship focuses on areas of civil procedure and federal jurisdiction, with an emphasis on appellate process and theory. Dobbins practiced law in both public and private sectors before coming to Willamette. Throughout his career, he has briefed and argued more than 50 cases in federal and state appellate courts.

About Willamette University College of Law

Opened in 1883, Willamette University College of Law is the first law school in the Pacific Northwest. The college has a long tradition at the forefront of legal education and is committed to the advancement of knowledge through excellent teaching, scholarship, mentoring and experience. Leading faculty, thriving externship and clinical law programs, ample practical skills courses, and a proactive career placement office prepare Willamette law students for today's legal job market. According to statistics compiled by the American Bar Association, Willamette ranks first in the Pacific Northwest for job placement for full-time, long-term, JD-preferred/JD-required jobs for the class of 2014 and first in Oregon for the classes of 2012, 2013 and 2014. Located across the street from the state capitol complex and the Oregon Supreme Court in downtown Salem, the college specializes in law and government, law and business, and dispute resolution. 

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