There’s bad and then there’s worse; Detroit, for example

In 2007, the city of Detroit spent $8.4 million in a settlement of a variety of police whistleblower lawsuits. Or, to be more precise, the taxpayers of the city of Detroit spent that $8.4 million, which could have been spent on improving schools, repairing roads, or essential public services in a city desperate for all those things, had the money not been spent compensating for a long record of disgraceful, obstructionist, and illegal behavior.

Now Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who is facing a criminal trial, is denying a public records request by Detroit’s two big-city newspapers on the grounds that his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself clashes with the state’s open records law, which requires him to turn over the requested documents.

Constitutional experts say the case raises “fascinating questions”. It is fascinating, but not because the outcome should be in any doubt. If public officials got to withhold public documents–documents that, by definition, belong to the public–whenever those documents established or tended to establish their criminal malfeasance, then we might as well pour kerosene on the open records statutes and throw in a lit match.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in re: Webster Hubbell is not on point, contrary to what one attorney is claiming. The documents that showed his criminal behavior were not public to begin with.

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