The Nevada Supreme Court ruled Friday that cell phone records are open to public inspection if the bills are paid by the public.
The court unanimously overturned Clark County District Judge Kathy Hardcastle, who had declared the phone records of Clark County Commission members protected by "deliberative privilege."
Under her ruling, Clark County had provided the the Las Vegas Review-Journal with edited records that left blank the last four digits of the phone numbers on each of the commission members' cell phone bills. The newspaper argued that prevented anyone from figuring out who the commission members were talking to.
Hardcastle agreed with county lawyers that the commission members have a right to protect the identity of those calling them and of those people they are calling.
The Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Bill Maupin, pointed out that Nevada law declares "all public books and public records of a governmental entity, the contents of which are not otherwise declared by law to be confidential, must be open at all times during office hours to inspection by any person."
The opinion says deliberative privilege is designed to allow decision makers a "frank exchange of opinions and recommendations necessary to the formulation of policy without being inhibited by fear of later public disclosure."
But it says the information requested is simply the phone records of the numbers called from or to those cell phones. It says that information doesn't compromise the "deliberative process of government."
"These records contain only numbers and billing information," says the opinion. "They contain no information as to topics discussed or advice or opinions exchanged between the parties to the telephone calls."
The opinion points out that other courts have also held that publicly owned cell phone records are subject to disclosure. Members of the Nevada Supreme Court have released their cell phone records, as has the city of Reno when requested.
The high court ruled that county arguments against disclosure don't outweigh the presumption favoring full public disclosure of the records.
But the opinion did make it clear that the opinion doesn't mandate automatic disclosure of all phone numbers called on public cell phones in all cases. Among the examples of possible exceptions are calls made to or from a police cell phone during an investigation.
In Carson City, Finance Director Dave Heath said most department heads have cell phones along with employees who need them such as public safety officials, some inspectors and sheriff's investigators. He didn't know exactly how many cell phones Carson City pays for.