The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that federal documents loaned to state agencies cannot be shielded from Massachusetts public records laws.
The ruling was part of a larger decision handed down by the state's highest court Thursday in response to a 2017 lawsuit filed by Rahima Rahim, the mother of Usaamah Rahim, who was killed by law enforcement while being investigated for alleged ties to a terrorist organization.
While state officials did release some documents to the Rahim family regarding the investigation into Usaamah Rahim's death, his mother, Rahima, filed a public records request and eventually sued state officials to obtain more information.
In court, the Suffolk County District Attorney declined to provide additional information, arguing that some documents were protected by an investigatory exemption in the Massachusetts public records law. The DA also claimed that the remaining documents could not be released because they were "on loan" to the state from the FBI under the condition that they would not be released publicly.
Thursday's ruling addressed multiple aspects of the lawsuit, the most consequential being the that state agencies cannot shield federal documents used in a state investigation from Massachusetts public records laws by claiming they were "on loan."
In a 21-page opinion Justice David Lowy wrote that any record received by a state agency or state official should be covered under state public records laws. It does not matter which agency technically owns them.
If every public records request also required the requestor to determine the owner of the documents, "then the public would necessarily be stymied in its request for greater government transparency," wrote Lowy.
Lawyers with the ACLU of Massachusetts, one of the organizations representing Rahima Rahim, said the decision was an important step to better government accountability.
"If we had a system where documents could be hidden from the public simply by calling them 'on loan' that would have opened the door to a lot of mischief," said Matthew Segal, the Legal Director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. "So the most important thing we’re seeing today is the Supreme Judicial Court is closing the door to that opportunity for mischief."
Thursday's ruling did not, however, determine whether or not Rahima Rahim would gain access to the documents she requested. The court determined that 21 of the documents she requested do fall within the investigatory exemption in the state public records laws and could remain shielded. The justices have asked a lower court to decide whether the rest, including the documents from the FBI, also fall within the state's investigatory exemption.
The FBI Boston office declined a request for comment citing the pending litigation. In a statement, District Attorney Rachael Rollins’ office said the DA is committed to transparency, “particularly when there are claims of excessive use of force,” adding that with the new clarity provided by the high court the DA’s office will review the materials and comply with the court’s request to submit the necessary information to the Superior Court.