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Court News Ohio

Clerk Must Produce Court Record, But Faces No Fine

The Hamilton County Clerk of Courts must respond to one of three records requests a state prison inmate accused the clerk of failing to provide. However, the inmate is not entitled to financial damages from the office for the lack of response to the request, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

In a per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court ruled that Clerk of Courts Aftab Pureval must produce a document from Lionel Harris’ aggravated murder trial that occurred around January 1992 or inform Harris that the document does not exist. Harris maintained that Pureval never responded to his public records request and he was entitled to $1,000 in statutory damages.

The Court clarified that while Ohio’s public records act, R.C. 149.43, provides for damages when a public official does not respond to a records request, court records are governed by the Rules of Superintendence for the Courts of Ohio, which does not have a financial penalty provision.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Sharon L. Kennedy, Judith L. French, Patrick F. Fischer, R. Patrick DeWine and Mary DeGenaro joined the majority opinion.

Justice Terrence O’Donnell dissented, stating he would affirm the judgment of the First District Court of Appeals, which dismissed the case.

Conviction Challenge Rests on Records Review
When Harris was charged with aggravated murder in 1991, his case was placed on the docket of Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Thomas Nurre. However, visiting Judge Donald Schott was assigned to preside over the trial. A jury convicted Harris and Judge Schott orally sentenced him to a 20 years to life in prison.

The judgment entry of the sentence was signed by Judge Nurre with the note: “for Schott, J.”

In April 2013, Harris sought to declare his conviction void because the sentencing entry was signed by someone other than the assigned judge. The First District dismissed the complaint, and Harris appealed to the Supreme Court, which affirmed the First District’s decision. The Court called the signing a “ministerial act,” and allows for one judge to sign a sentencing entry placed by an assigned judge when the assigned judge already has imposed a sentence and the entry correctly reflects the sentence and the assigned judge’s name.

Records Sought After Ruling
In 2017, Harris sent a public records request to the clerk of courts, by certified mail, requesting six documents pertaining to his trial court proceeding. Three of the requested documents related to the assignment of judges. He also sought copies of two judgment entries, and a 1992 document indicating that state costs were satisfied.

Pureval did not respond to the records request, and Harris sought a writ of mandamus from the First District compelling Pureval to produce the documents. In his request, Harris cited the public records act and the rules of superintendence. He demanded an award of $1,000, based on the provision in R.C. 149.43(C)(2), permitting an award of $100 per day, up to $1,000 from a public office that fails to respond to a public records request.

Pureval asked the First District to dismiss the case by citing the docket from the criminal case and pointing to statements made by Harris in his pleadings that indicated he already had copies for five of his six record requests or was informed the document did not exist. Pureval also provided the court with information from an office staff member who determined that no document existed to meet Harris’ his sixth record request.

The First District dismissed the case, finding Harris received the records he sought or was informed that it was impossible to grant some of his requests. Harris appealed to the Supreme Court, which is required to consider the case.

Court Denies Damages
Harris asserted that the First District wrongly ruled that Pureval did not owe him $1,000 for the delay in responding to the request because Harris fulfilled the requirements under the records act to receive damages and Pureval failed to follow the law’s response requirements.

The opinion stated the public records act was not applicable to Harris’ case. It noted the court Rules of Superintendence regulate the procedure for public access to court records and that since 2009, the procedure in the rules solely governs record requests.

The rule allows a person who has not received court records to file a writ of mandamus to produce them.

“The Rules of Superintendence do not authorize statutory damages under any circumstances,” the opinion stated.

Clerk Must Attempt to Locate Record
Harris sought the certificate of assignment, signed by the Supreme Court’s chief justice at the time, which gave the case to Judge Schott. The Court noted it is unclear whether Judge Schott was assigned by an order from the chief justice or by some other procedure.

The Court ordered Pureval to produce the certificate of assignment for Harris, if one exists, or “to clarify for the record that no such documents exists.” The Court found that for all the other requests, Harris either received the information, or the document he requested did not exist.

2017-1583. State ex rel. Harris v. Pureval, Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-4718.

Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

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