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EDITORIAL

Why should the cause of death be a big secret?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013 - 12:01 am

State needs to reconcile two contradictory laws.

When there are two laws on the books that seem to have contradictory effects, it is time for legislators to step in and clean up the mess. That’s the situation today with “cause of death” notices and whether the public does or does not have a right to see them.

One state law, cited by the Evansville Courier & Press in its lawsuit against the Vanderburgh County Health Department, requires health departments to keep records of the death certificates filed by petitions and make them available to the public. But another law seems to limit access to “cause of death” records to those who can prove they have a direct interest in the case, such as a spouse or immediate relative who may need them for legal purposes.

The former law was relied on by Indiana Public Access Counselor Joseph Hoage, who sided with the newspaper and the public’s right to know. The latter was used by Circuit Court Judge Carl Heldt, who ruled for the county’s right to withhold the information. The judge acknowledged the contradictory laws, but said in such cases, “the more specific” law must be followed.

The Courier & Press had published causes of death from 2002 until May 2012, when the health department stopped including death causes in the information it provided to the newspaper. It is appealing the court’s decision.

There are two reasons for the General Assembly to take corrective action.

One is simple clarity. When there are contradictory laws, the resulting incoherence creates not just confusion among members of the public, but also a cynical distrust of the whole legal system.

But legislators should also act in a way that reaffirms this state’s commitment to openness and transparency in government. Indiana has made some great efforts to that end in recent years, but the impulse to hide things never goes away.

It should be noted that “death certificates” and “cause of death” are not synonymous. Death certificates had traditionally been considered public information in pretty much all jurisdictions in the United States. But those certificates may or may not contain the cause of death, and that particular piece of information has not always been considered eligible for public consumption. Various jurisdictions have enacted all sorts of requirements about who can see cause of death and under what conditions.

So, let’s make it public information here. You don’t have to think very hard to come up with all kinds of examples where that knowledge might be crucial to public safety or simple peace of mind. This is one set of secrets the government should not be keeping.