Cornyn Open Records Letter Ruling October 25, 2000
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John Cornyn
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October 25, 2000

Judge Jo-Anne L. Osbourn
Justice of the Peace, Precinct 4
609B W. Young
Llano, Texas 78643

OR2000-4157

Dear Judge Osbourn:

You ask whether certain information is subject to required public disclosure under chapter 552 of the Government Code (the "Public Information Act"). Your request was assigned ID# 140499.

You received a request for certain specified autopsy records. You indicate that you are in possession or control of those records. You ask whether the requested autopsy records are subject to the Public Information Act (the "Act"). You also inquire whether you may release the autopsy records in question to the entity that requested them. You also ask about the applicability, if any, of section 671.013 of the Health and Safety Code.(1)

Initially, we note that the Act does not govern access to judicial records. See Gov't Code 552.003(1)(B) (providing that the term "'[g]overnmental body' . . . does not include the judiciary"); see also Benavides v. Lee, 665 S.W.2d 151 (Tex. App.--San Antonio 1983, no writ). Because a justice of the peace is a member of the judiciary, the records that a justice maintains are not subject to the Act. See Tex. Const. Art. V, 1; Open Records Decision No. 25 (1974). Therefore, while you are free as a member of the judiciary to provide access to your records to the extent permitted by law, the Act "neither authorizes information held by the judiciary to be withheld nor requires it to be disclosed." Open Records Decision No. 25 at 3 (1974) (construing statutory predecessor).

We note, however, that section 27.004 of the Government Code gives "any interested party" the right to inspect records of the office of any justice of the peace at reasonable times. This office has interpreted this statute as giving the general public the right to inspect records filed with a justice of the peace. See Open Records Decision No. 25 (1974). Additionally, we have recognized a person's common law right to inspect public records, including judicial records. See Attorney General Opinion DM-166 at 3 (1992) (public has general right to inspect and copy judicial records, subject to court's power to control access to its records); Open Records Decision No. 25 at 3 (1974) (public has right to inspect papers filed in a justice of the peace court).

In this particular instance, you have been asked to provide access to autopsy records. We believe that chapter 49 of the Code of Criminal Procedure is relevant to whether you may do so. Under subchapter A of chapter 49, a justice of the peace is charged with the duty of conducting inquests in a county that does not have a medical examiner.(2) This office has concluded that although article 49.15(d) of the Code of Criminal Procedure deems an inquest summary report confidential and subject to inspection only by order of the district court, article 49.15(a) does not make an inquest record confidential. See Crim. Proc. Code art. 49.15. We therefore believe that an inquest record, including any autopsy report contained in an inquest record, is open to public inspection under section 27.004 of the Government Code and the common law right to inspect records of the judiciary. We have enclosed a copy of a prior ruling in this regard.

Respectfully,

James W. Morris, III
Assistant Attorney General
Open Records Division

JWM/ljp

Ref: ID# 140499

Encl. OR98-3307

cc: Ms. Carole West
Director, Medical Records
Llano Memorial Healthcare System
200 E. Ollie
Llano, Texas 78643


 

Footnotes

1. We note that this statute provides for the release of autopsy records for the purpose of determining the cause of death in connection with a worker's compensation or insurance claim. As you do not inform us that the requestor seeks access to the autopsy records in question for either of these purposes, we do not address section 671.013.

2. We presume that these provisions are applicable to Llano County.
 

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