ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Alaska Supreme Court has agreed with a Superior Court judge that Gov. Tony Knowles did not have to provide the Gwich'in Steering Committee with a handful of documents regarding the governor's lobbying efforts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
Gwich'in leaders oppose opening the refuge because they say it would disturb vital caribou calving grounds and threaten their way of life.
Superior Court Judge Sigurd Murphy ruled that seven documents could be withheld from the Gwich'in under exceptions to the Public Records Act in order to protect free discussion within the governor's office during the decision-making process.
Three of the documents were memos from a lobbyist on lobbying strategies. One was a draft media plan from another consultant. Three were e-mail communications between Knowles aides on the proposed media plan.
Judge Murphy looked at all seven and determined they fell within the law's exemptions. The five-member Alaska Supreme Court also examined the papers, and agreed, unanimously, with Murphy.
The governor's office originally withheld 13 documents when it responded to a broad request from the Gwich'in Steering Committee in November 1997. After the Gwich'in group appealed to Jim Ayers, the governor's chief of staff, five more were released. The governor's office provided one more after the Gwich'in filed an appeal with the Superior Court.
The Supreme Court noted that ''citizen access to public records has been characterized as a 'fundamental right.''' But it said the exception allowing deliberative documents to be kept secret is intended to protect the decision-making process, and the quality of the decisions reached.
The question, as the Supreme Court put it, is ''whether disclosure of the communication sought would affect the quality of governmental decision-making.'' In this case, the justices said, it would.
While the high court agreed with Judge Murphy on keeping the documents secret, the justices said the judge was wrong in ruling that the Gwich'in Steering Committee should pay $1,000 in legal fees to the state. The state Supreme Court said the Gwich'in group was a public interest litigant, and thus is excluded from the rule that the losing party pay legal costs of the winner.
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