An administrative agency’s records consist of a thorough compilation of documents considered by the agency for deciding a case or for making a rule. Administrative records are kept to understand the decision made and its rationale. This will help in future administrative processes. If the decision is subject to judicial review, the records will help the court in determining the rationale of the decision. Keeping administrative records will allow public participation in administrative decisions because administrative records are to be made available for public inspection.
Privileged documents, such as documents subject to attorney-client, attorney work product, or deliberative process privileges, can be kept as confidential administrative record. Same applies to confidential documents, such as those containing confidential business information. However, non-public information is to be summarized in a publishable way so as to make it available to public.
Generally public access to administrative records is not a common law right. However, if a person has a reasonable just purpose s/he can have access to administrative records. The person’s purpose should not have any adverse effect on public interest. In most states, statutes grant information rights over administrative documents to public if they posses a reasonable purpose[i]. In addition to that, a party to a case before an administrative tribunal can inspect data regarding the case in the tribunal. The records can be inspected to procure details or evidence needed for hearing in the case. However, the right cannot extend to general examination of records as that can impede work of the tribunal.
Public access statutes confer right to public to examine administrative agencies’ documents. Statutes also determine extent of right an individual can exercise. When there is no statutory direction, the right to inspect public records is to be exercised subject to reasonable rules and regulations imposed by administrative agencies.[ii]. Federal housekeeping statute provides public availability of records held by federal administrative agencies. Administrative agencies were provided discretionary powers to restrict public access to government documents in the general public’s interest[iii]. Executive branch of government authorized administrative heads to prescribe regulations regarding custody, use, and preservation of the records. However, public availability of documents does not restrict an administrative agency from appointing an officer to determine confidentiality of administrative records. Confidential records can be withheld from public in nation’s interest at large[iv].
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Privacy Act regulate public’s right to inspect administrative agencies’ documents. FOIA applies only to federal administrative agencies. It does not give access to records of Congress, the courts, or by state or local administrative agencies. Every state has separate public access laws that should be consulted to access state and local administrative records. FOIA provides exemption to confidential and privileged information from being disclosed to general public.
[i] Freedom Newspapers, Inc. v. Denver & R. G. W. R. Co., 731 P.2d 740 (Colo. Ct. App. 1986)
[ii] Pressman v. Elgin, 187 Md. 446 (Md. 1947)
[iii] Hearst Corp. v. Hoppe, 90 Wn.2d 123 (Wash. 1978)
[iv] MacEwan v. Holm, 226 Ore. 27 (Or. 1961)