State owes jailhouse lawyer $1,000 over record denial

From The Columbus Dispatch His background of drug-manufacturing and violence aside, James Carr Sr. might have made for a decent lawyer.

The jailhouse lawyer hit the law books after prison officials illegally denied his requests for a copy of a single memorandum, winning $1,000 in damages from the Ohio Supreme Court on Thursday.

Carr’s well-researched legal briefs, complete with propositions of law and citations of prior court rulings, helped prompt the justices to award him victory in the public-records case by a 6-1 vote.

Carr’s court fight began in 2012 when he asked an official at the London Correctional Institution, west of Columbus, for a copy of a chaplain’s memo about acceptable religious materials mailed by outside ministries.

Carr’s three requests for the memorandum — despite identifying its topic, author and approximate time frame — were repeatedly denied by a prison official as “ambiguous, overbroad and unduly burdensome.”

He then appealed to the 12th District Court of Appeals, where the memo finally surfaced in legal filings, and the judges upheld the denial of Carr’s records requests as proper.

The Ohio Supreme Court, in its unsigned opinion, said Carr’s requests for the memo were not improper, the arguments of the state aside that he had not “fairly described” what he was seeking.

“No reasonable public employee responsible for public records could have thought that a request for a single document was overbroad or burdensome,” the opinion said.

A records request that seeks all emails and correspondence between an individual and a government agency over a two-month period is not overly broad, the court found.

The justices also reinforced prior rulings that “perfection” — such as identifying the date a memo is written — is not required in identifying records sought in requests. Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger cast the dissenting vote in the case.

The ruling provides some guidance to public officials amid a growing trend of rejecting records requests as “overly broad” in the wake of rulings in recent years.

In addition to the maximum $1,000 in damages he will receive, the justices also instructed the appellate court to determine how much in costs Carr is entitled to recover for pursuing his lawsuit.

Carr, 41, is scheduled to be released from prison in 2018 after being sentenced to 13 years in prison for felonious assault and drug crimes in Clermont County, east of Cincinnati.