The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that federal documents on loan to state agencies cannot be protected under Massachusetts public records laws.
the decision was part of a larger ruling issued Thursday by the state’s highest court in response to a 2017 lawsuit filed by Rahima Rahim, the mother of Usaamah Rahim, who was killed by the police while under investigation for suspected links to a terrorist organization.
While state officials disclosed certain documents to the Rahim family regarding the investigation into the death of Usaamah Rahim, his mother, Rahima, filed for public registration and ultimately sued officials of the State for more information.
In court, the Suffolk County district attorney declined to provide additional information, arguing that certain documents were protected by an investigation exemption in the Massachusetts Public Records Act. The Quick Processing DA also claimed that the remaining documents could not be disclosed as they were “ready” to the state by the FBI on the condition that they were not made public.
Thursday’s ruling touched on several aspects of the lawsuit, the most important of which being that state agencies cannot protect federal documents used in a state investigation of Massachusetts public records laws by claiming that ‘they were “on loan”.
In a 21-page opinion, Judge David Lowy wrote that any document received by a state agency or official should be covered by the state’s public records laws. It doesn’t matter which agency technically owns them.
If each request for public records also required the requester to determine the owner of the records, “then the public would necessarily be stuck in their demand for greater government transparency,” Lowy wrote.
Lawyers for the Massachusetts ACLU, one of the organizations representing Rahima Rahim, said the move was an important step towards greater government accountability.
“If we had a system where documents could be hidden from the public just by calling them ‘on loan’, that would have opened the door to a lot of mischief,” said Matthew Segal, general counsel for the Massachusetts ACLU. “So the most important thing we see today is that the Supreme Court of Justice closes the door on this opportunity for mischief.”
Thursday’s decision, however, did not determine whether or not Rahima Rahim would have access to the documents she had requested. The court determined that 21 of the documents she requested fell under the exemption from investigation under state public records laws and could remain protected. The judges asked a lower court to decide whether the rest, including FBI documents, also fell under the state’s investigative exemption.
The FBI office in Boston declined a request for comment citing the ongoing litigation. In a statement, District Attorney’s Office Rachael Rollins said the DA is committed to being transparent, “particularly where there are allegations of excessive use of force,” adding that with the new Clarity provided by the High Court, the DA’s office will review the documents and comply with the court’s request to submit the necessary information to the Superior Court.