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Scottsdale, Arizona

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Geoff Trachtenberg
Geoff Trachtenberg
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Arizona Public Records Law May Require the Court to Determine the Nature of the Particular Government Document

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These days, most people know that both state and federal “Freedom of Information Acts” require the dicslosure of public records. After all, such documents technically “belong to the people” and are created in connection with public service. Indeed, ARS 39-121 provides that “public records and other matters in the custody of any officer shall be open to inspection by any person at all times during office hours.”

So, then, what is a public record?

Arizona law defines “public records” broadly and creates a presumption requiring the disclosure of public documents. Although the phrase “public records and other matters” is not expressly defined by statute, A.R.S. § 39-121.01(B) requires that “[a]ll officers and public bodies shall maintain all records . . . reasonably necessary or appropriate to maintain an accurate knowledge of their official activities and of any of their activities which are supported by monies from the state or any political subdivision of the state.”

In addition, the Arizona Supreme Court has defined public records as (1) one “made by a public officer in pursuance of a duty, the immediate purpose of which is to disseminate information to the public, or to serve as a memorial of official transactions for public reference”; (2) a record that is “required to be kept, or necessary to be kept in the discharge of a duty imposed by law or directed by law to serve as a memorial and evidence of something written, said or done”; or (3) any “written record of transactions of a public officer in his office, which is a convenient and appropriate method of discharging his duties, and is kept by him as such, whether required by . . . law or not.” Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community v. Rogers, 168 Ariz. 531, 538-39, 815 P.2d 900, 907-08 (1991)

As the Arizona Supreme Court recently held in Griffis v. Pinal County, the broad definition of public records is not unlimited. In particular, the Court held that public records do “not encompass documents of a purely private or personal nature” and “only those documents having a ‘substantial nexus’ with a government agency’s activities qualify as public records.” Thus, determining a document’s status is a “content-driven inquiry.”

In Griffis the issue revolved around emails. The Court recently concluded that personal e-mails generated or maintained on a government e-mail system are, as a matter of law, not necessarily public records under Arizona’s public records and need to be examined by the trial court in camera.