The Texas Public Information Act

As Harris County Law Library celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), it’s important to note that FOIA only applies to federal records. Information about Texas state governmental bodies may be requested under a different series of state laws known as The Texas Public Information Act (PIA). Formerly known as the Texas Open Records Act, PIA was enacted in 1973 in the wake of a series of high-profile government scandals. The text of the statute may be read at Texas Government Code, Chapter 552. Its opening section at 552.001 contains a powerful statement of principle:

The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.

Information on submitting a PIA request can be found on the Harris County website. For requests to the Office of the Harris County Attorney or complaints regarding a failure to release public information, please visit the website of the Harris County Attorney’s Office.

FOIA Friday: The Equal Access to CRS Reports Act of 2016

FOIA Friday at the Harris County Law Library: Equal Access to CRS Reports Act of 2016

Throughout the month of July, the Harris County Law Library is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act. Accordingly, with today’s blog post, the Law Library is calling attention to an important piece of pending legislation, the Equal Access to CRS Reports Act of 2016, an initiative with broad support and strong endorsements from a coalition of 40 organizations, including the American Library Association. (Senate and House versions of the bill are available online.) This bipartisan initiative seeks to expand access to government information and to increase participation in the political process by establishing an electronic database of CRS materials for the benefit of the public good.

CRS Reports, an invaluable resource for lawmakers, are objective, nonpartisan issue briefs on pending legislation and other items of debate before Congress. They are produced by the Congressional Research Service, an agency whose staff includes more than 600 people and whose annual budget exceeds $100 million. The reports are not classified, yet, with few exceptions, they are not freely available to the public. Constituents may request the reports from congressional offices, but no central repository of CRS Reports is available in the public domain.  

In January of 2015, Representatives Leonard Lance (R) and Mike Quigley (D) introduced a measure that would direct the Congressional Research Service (CRS) to “develop and maintain a centralized, searchable, electronic database of CRS materials for public access.” In a letter to their Congressional colleagues, Representatives Lance and Quigley stated their case:

“Across the nation, citizens are deeply and passionately engaged in debates about the future of our country and the significant challenges we face at home and abroad.  However, as the public debate has become increasingly partisan and polarized, it is more important than ever for citizens to have full access to the same neutral, unbiased information that many of us rely on to help us formulate important decisions.  Opening CRS to the public will empower our constituents with vital information about key issues, policies and budgets.”

Until this or similar legislation is passed, the only public sources for CRS Reports are the websites of those who harvest the documents from incidental sources and make them available online. Aside from these private organizations, universities, and transparency advocates, however, which reporters and lobbyists often rely upon, the public has few other options.Today, on FOIA Friday, the Law Library is highlighting this potentially transformative legislation and the right of the American people to access the government information that drives our nation's democracy. 

Latest & Greatest – Federal Information Disclosure

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   By James T. O’Reilly  Published by Thomson Reuters (2016)  KF 5753 .O74 2012

By James T. O’Reilly

Published by Thomson Reuters (2016)

KF 5753 .O74 2012

In conjunction with the Law Library’s celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), we are highlighting some resources that will enhance your understanding of the scope and limitations of FOIA. Sometimes referred to as the “Bible of FOIA,” Federal Information Disclosure answers many questions surrounding the public’s “right to know” and the issue of governmental transparency. From the origins of the Freedom of Information Act with its adoption in 1966 to its inevitable expansion with the Privacy Act (1974), the Federal Advisory Committee Act (1972), and the Government in the Sunshine Act (1976), the author examines all aspects of FOIA as well as court decisions interpreting its provisions. The author explains the procedural aspects of FOIA, including the content of a request, the processing of the request, and the search limitations involved with the requests and addresses FOIA litigation and aspects of judicial review, such as de novo review, summary judgment, and the myriad issues that may arise during this review process. He also discusses the nine statutory exemptions to FOIA and how the courts have routinely interpreted those exemptions.

The author wisely avoids the political facets of FOIA and its progeny by simply explaining the process behind the disclosure of government information and how the United States courts have interpreted the statute and have balanced the public’s “right to know” with the government’s desire from some level of secrecy. His book is meant to be “an essential tool” for the seeker of federal information.

Latest and Greatest – Locating U.S. Government Information Handbook

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   By Edward Herman and Theodora Belniak  Published by William S. Hein, Co., Inc. (2015)  ZA 5055 .U6 H47 2015

By Edward Herman and Theodora Belniak

Published by William S. Hein, Co., Inc. (2015)

ZA 5055 .U6 H47 2015

Let’s face it. There is a lot of government information found in print and online, but actually finding it can be quite difficult, not to mention confusing. Here comes Edward Herman’s Locating U.S. Government Information Handbook to the rescue. Designed for the novice researcher, this handbook takes you through a brief introduction about the structure of the United States government and basic online research skills and strategies then on to more specific research sources, such as the indexes published by the Government Publishing Office, U.S. Government maps, historical government documents, and technical reports. There is also some helpful information about how to contact governmental agencies and members of Congress as well as a discussion of the Freedom of Information Act and how to submit requests under the Act.

If you feel overwhelmed by the volume of government information and are not sure how to find answers you are seeking, try Locating U.S. Government Information Handbook. It’s available at the reference desk. Just ask a librarian for assistance.