DENVER (AP) — Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper on Friday vetoed a bill that would have withheld child autopsies from public inspection, delivering a victory to government transparency advocates and news organizations.
The measure, Senate Bill 223, passed both chambers with wide bipartisan support in the final days of the 2018 legislative session, backed by county coroners who said families that lose a loved one should have their privacy protected.
But it was opposed by news organizations and the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, who said exempting autopsy reports from the state Open Records Act would shield elected coroners from public scrutiny. And they said it would prevent investigations like "Failed to Death," a 2012 report by The Denver Post and a Denver TV station, which found that the state's youth services system had failed to protect at-risk children from harm.
In an interview explaining his veto, Hickenlooper told the Associated Press that keeping child autopsy records open to the public could help prevent such tragedies from happening again.
"It's lasting grief for families, for communities, and certainly, our heart goes out to any family who's gone through this," said Hickenlooper, a Democrat. "But that's part of the reason why you want to do everything you can to ensure that it happens as rarely as possible.
"...When you look at the record — transparency and dialogue after a tragedy often brings about change. It can lead to better public policies. It can lead to more successful government protections. It can lead to more public and private resources on certain issues."
Supporters also argued the bill would help deter copycat youth suicides. But Hickenlooper on Friday argued there was no evidence to support the claim.
"We talked to a number of experts and the feeling was that there is a copycat nature in a number of teen suicides, but that it's almost always driven by their social media account, by what they hear at school from other friends," he said.
Normally, lawmakers can override a gubernatorial veto with a two-thirds vote. But this veto can't be overturned, because the Legislature is no longer in session.
State Sen. Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican who co-sponsored the bill, said he was disappointed by the veto. He said he tried to weigh the competing concerns of public disclosure and family privacy.
"The bill passed with the vote of 96 (out of 100) members of the General Assembly, which evidences to me that their constituents came down on the side of privacy for grieving families," Gardner said in an interview. But, he added, "it's clearly one on which thoughtful, responsible citizens can disagree."
Gardner said he hasn't decided if he will bring the proposal back next year.
In light of transparency concerns, lawmakers did carve out exceptions allowing the records to be released for the "public benefit." But open records advocates still opposed the bill, because it would have required people seeking records to petition a court for their release. Currently, all autopsy reports are presumed to be public in Colorado, but can be sealed by a judge under certain conditions.
During one committee hearing, Randy Gorton, president of the Colorado Coroners Association, dismissed government accountability arguments made by opponents, saying he and fellow coroners are held accountable by law enforcement and prosecutors.
"The families we answer to also are the ones we are accountable to," he said.