A state judge’s 2013 ruling that ordered LSU to turn over the names of finalists and other candidates in its presidential search was partly overturned by a 1st Circuit panel on Tuesday.
Instead of turning over the names and resumes of all 35 candidates for president at LSU, as state District Judge Janice Clark had ruled, the 1st Circuit decided that information from only the finalists — three people interviewed and a fourth person who withdrew from the process — must be turned over to the public.
The appeals court decision stems from a lawsuit filed by The Advocate and The Times-Picayune asking a judge to order the school to provide the records.
The 1st Circuit panel also reversed Clark on her decision to hold the LSU Board of Supervisors and its then-chairman Hank Danos in contempt of court for not turning over the records as she had ordered. She fined LSU $500 a day for each day the records are not produced.
Attorneys for LSU and the newspapers said they are reviewing the rulings and weighing their options in terms of whether to seek a rehearing or ask the state Supreme Court to review the 1st Circuit decision.
LSU’s search for a new president ended with the selection of F. King Alexander, former president of California State University in Long Beach, California.
Then-Advocate reporter Koran Addo asked for public records from the search, including the names of the 35 candidates the board considered. The board denied the request, claiming it was required to provide information only on those who applied for the position and Alexander was the only “applicant.” The board said the other 34 candidates never applied.
Clark disagreed and ordered the board to produce the information on all 35 candidates. The board appealed.
Nine months after hearing arguments in the case, the 1st Circuit panel ruled Tuesday that the 35 candidates were part of a “broad wish list” compiled by the search committee and may not actually have consented or sought to be considered for the position.
Only the four finalists who agreed to interviews or formally withdrew from the process took affirmative steps showing their intent to become “applicants,” the panel ruled. A fifth potential finalist who took a job elsewhere during LSU’s search did not rise to the level of applicant.
Lori Mince, who represents the newspapers, said she was “certainly pleased that the court rejected LSU’s attempt to shield the entire hiring process from public view.” But she found troubling the notion that only those candidates who expressed an interest in the job, rather than all those the board considered, would be made public.
Mince said the intent of the law requiring disclosure of applicant information was to prevent public bodies from circumventing public records laws by hiring someone based solely on oral interviews.
“And yet the 1st Circuit has interpreted it in a way that limits the right of access, even in cases where the public bodies did not engage in oral-only hiring,” Mince said. “We disagree with that and think all the resumes should be released, as Judge Clark ordered.”
Jimmy Faircloth, the board’s attorney, said LSU was not given an opportunity at trial to address which candidates would qualify as “applicants” under the law.
“It was all or nothing,” Faircloth said. “There was never any attempt by the plaintiffs to prove who did or didn’t qualify as an applicant, so the issue at trial court dealt with disclosure of everything.”
Asked if he agreed with the court’s analysis of which candidates rose to the level of being an applicant, Faircloth said, “The court had to draw the line somewhere. I think you could’ve drawn it further left or further right, but I couldn’t say I disagree with where they drew it.”
LSU’s lead attorney, Shelby McKenzie, said in a written statement Tuesday that, “While LSU continues to believe that it followed a proper and the most effective process for selection of its president, LSU appreciates the responsibility and authority of the judiciary for statutory interpretation.”
Faircloth lauded the panel’s reversal of Clark’s contempt ruling against LSU, saying the university’s actions in defending its right to an appeal were reasonable.
The panel also reversed Clark’s award of civil penalties, finding that the board was not arbitrary or unreasonable in responding to the newspapers’ initial records requests.
Sitting on the 1st Circuit panel that issued the opinion were Judges John T. Pettigrew, J. Michael McDonald and Page McClendon.
Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen. Contact her by phone at (225) 336-6981.