BOISE — Just how close did Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin come to jail over her defiance of the Idaho Public Records Act?
Judging by the court documents, the answer appears to be about two weeks. And that threat only appears to have hung over her for one day, between the filing of a motion for contempt of court and her release of the disputed public records the next day.
Still, it was a very real possibility, and an unusual situation for a statewide elected official.
Here’s how it happened: McGeachin refused to release public records relating to her education task force that were requested by four different Idaho reporters from three separate news outlets, starting in April. In July, the Idaho Press Club filed a public records lawsuit against McGeachin, which is the sole remedy under Idaho law when a public official or agency refuses to release records as the law requires.
The Press Club won its lawsuit on Aug. 26, when 4th District Judge Steven Hippler ordered McGeachin to turn over the records in full, fined her $750 for “bad faith” violations of the public records act, and ordered her to pay the Press Club’s attorney fees and costs.
But despite the judge’s order, McGeachin still didn’t release the records. She filed a motion for reconsideration of the judge’s ruling on Sept. 15, but never filed the required supporting documents.
On Sept. 29, the Idaho Press Club filed a motion to have McGeachin held in contempt of court until she released the records as ordered.
“If you ask to have someone held in contempt, it means they’ve violated a court order,” explained Wendy Olson, the former U.S. Attorney for Idaho who represented the Press Club in the lawsuit (and full disclosure here: I’m the club’s current president). “There’s either civil contempt or criminal contempt,” Olson said.
Under Idaho law, civil contempt applies when someone has violated a court order, but still could take action to comply with it. “So punishment is to have them detained until they do it,” Olson said. “The theory is they hold the keys to their own cell, as soon as they do what they’ve been ordered. … The typical remedy is to detain them until they comply. That’s the whole purpose of holding them in contempt.”
Criminal contempt of court comes into play when the person has violated a court order and it’s no longer possible for them to comply with it, whether that’s because evidence has been destroyed, time has passed making compliance no longer possible, or other factors. In those cases, a judge could impose fines or a jail term.
Civil contempt was what was at issue in the McGeachin case.
In a “press conference” in eastern Idaho on Thursday at which she took no questions from the press, McGeachin declared, “The characterizations of me being in contempt of court are factually inaccurate. No judge ever ordered me in contempt.”
It’s true that she wasn’t ordered held in contempt. But it’s untrue that, as she alleged, Idaho’s major news media, including the Associated Press, said she was. Here’s the lead paragraph from the AP’s report on the contempt motion: “A coalition of journalists is asking an Idaho judge to hold the state’s lieutenant governor in contempt of court for refusing to turn over public documents despite the judge’s order that she do so.”
McGeachin also claimed at the event that “the press has continued to blatantly lie and say I am asking Idahoans to pay legal bills.”
But she herself submitted a supplemental budget request to the state Division of Financial Management on Sept. 8 for “$50,000 in supplemental funding to pay for legal bills that cannot be covered by the Lt. Governor’s Office current budget without reducing staff hours and constituent services,” directly citing the Idaho Press Club lawsuit. That’s the process by which state agencies or officials request additional taxpayer funds not already included in their budget.
In the court’s Aug. 26 order, the judge wrote that McGeachin’s attempts at withholding the documents from public view were baseless and frivolous and that some of the exemptions she cited — including one specific to hunting and fishing licenses — were so irrelevant that it appeared the lieutenant governor “may have blindly selected them at random.”
In response to the Sept. 29 motion for contempt, the judge ordered McGeachin to appear in court on the contempt motion on Oct. 13, about two weeks away. He also, on Sept. 30, rejected McGeachin’s motion for reconsideration. That afternoon, McGeachin released the records.
“I think the motion had its intended effect,” Olson said. “You have to follow a court’s orders, and that applies to everybody.”