Michael Lee-Murphy file photo
The state Supreme Court on Monday unanimously upheld decisions by a lower court and the Freedom of Information Commission that the Medical Examining Board had held an illegal meeting that excluded the public.

In 2009, the board met behind closed doors to obtain legal advice regarding a letter it received from Public Defender Michael Courtney. The underlying letter sought information about whether a physician could be disciplined for administering a lethal injection during an execution.

The public defender sent a subsequent letter to Assistant Attorney General Thomas J. Ring, warning that there may be a conflict of interest if Ring represents the board while it weighs Courtney’s request for a ruling on the lethal injection issue.

In response to that letter, the board announced and conducted an executive session on Feb. 17, 2009. During that five-minute executive session the board sought legal advice regarding Courtney’s letter. The question before the high court was whether the executive session should have been public.

The Medical Examining Board maintained that it was justified in its private meeting because the sessions discussed confidential legal information, the sort of information that would normally be subject to attorney-client confidentiality.

Freedom of Information Law allows for private meetings between government agencies and attorneys if the meeting is in direct response to impending legal action.

The Freedom of Information Committee, however, found that Courtney’s letter did not imply any impending legal action and the Supreme Court agreed. The court maintained in its opinion that the letter simply “noted a potential conflict of interest and suggested a course of action.”

The court ruled that the board violated the state’s Freedom of Information law, which stipulates that the meetings of government agencies be public, and ordered the board to comply with such standards in the future.

The board never ruled on Courtney’s underlying request to determine whether physicians should be punished for assisting in lethal injections.

Click here to read the Freedom of Information decision, here to read the Superior Court decision, and here  for the Supreme Court’s decision.