This week, Arizona Republicans passed legislation that shields legislators from the state’s open-records law. This move comes months after the release of thousands of documents that detailed extensive efforts to undermine Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election. The documents that have been released over the past two years include correspondence describing the inner workings of a partisan review of the 2020 election by the Cyber Ninjas, as well as emails by Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, urging lawmakers to overturn President Donald Trump’s narrow defeat in the state.
The new rules will greatly limit the public release of lawmakers’ communications. State senators will not have to disclose any text messages sent on personal devices, even when dealing with state business. For lawmakers in both the Senate and the House, emails and other documents will be destroyed after 90 days, in many cases, well before members of the public know to ask for them.
This move has been criticized by lawyers and advocacy groups who argue that it is contrary to transparency and government accountability in Arizona. David Bodney, a lawyer who has represented the Arizona Republic in open-records litigation over the 2020 election review, said, “I think it is petty, vindictive and contrary to the plain interests of transparency and government accountability in Arizona.”
The rule changes come after the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that it had no power to enforce the state’s open-meetings law when it came to legislators. This ruling appeared to clear the way for the legislature, narrowly led by Republicans, to set its own transparency policies, which it has promptly done.
The liberal group American Oversight used Arizona’s records law to uncover the way Republicans conducted the 2020 election review, which was overseen by Cyber Ninjas, a secretive group that had never before analyzed an election. Without those records, the public wouldn’t know as much as it does, said Heather Sawyer, American Oversight’s executive director. Sawyer said, “It does seem like they’re just trying to find a way to be able to operate in the dark, which is incredibly anti-democratic. It’s anti-American, quite frankly.”
The rule change benefits all lawmakers at the expense of ordinary voters of all political stripes, she said, Arizonans won’t be able to find out what legislators are doing behind the scenes, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans. “It is one of the things that sets us apart from autocracies, that we require our public officials to be accountable to the people they serve,” she said.
Brendan Fischer, the deputy executive director of the group Documented, argued the rules will “further obscure the roles of far-right national groups” that seek to influence the legislature.
This rule change in Arizona will restrict the public’s access to lawmakers’ correspondence under a law that dates to 1901 and is intended to bolster public access to information about how elected officials and government workers operate. The law allows constituents, reporters, lawyers, and others to request paper documents, emails, text messages, video and audio recordings, government reports, and communications about publicly funded activities, no matter the device. Generally, the public has the right to review or obtain the records but sometimes must pay for them.
The move comes after Republican lawmakers, who hold one-vote majorities in each chamber, fielded requests for records from state lawmakers and Capitol aides involving efforts to either overturn the 2020 election or question the results. Public records helped Americans better understand how some people tried to sow doubt about the validity of Biden’s victory.