Laurel to South Dakota’s Argus Leader for taking on the state’s antiquated public-records laws. When the paper wanted the guest list for the governor’s traditional glad-handing fall pheasant hunt, it had only one option: ask nicely. The state’s open-records law is so weak as to be almost nonexistent; it tied for last among the fifty states in a 2002 ranking by the trade group Investigative Reporters and Editors. But after the governor said no in December 2005, the Argus Leader filed a long-shot suit—as Jon Arneson, the paper’s attorney, gently put it, “I didn’t have a lot of law to go on”—arguing that it was time for the courts to reinterpret the statute, which hasn’t been substantially updated since 1939. After losing in circuit court, the state Supreme Court (or rather, a makeshift court of substitute judges empaneled after the five original justices, who presumably attended the hunt, recused themselves) ruled against the paper on September 13 and suggested it seek a legislative remedy. “As the largest news organization in the state, if we don’t fight the battle to the end, no one else will,” says editor Randell Beck. But with new transparency-friendly leaders in the state legislature, Beck is cautiously optimistic that by bringing attention to the cause, it may have been the right time to lose.

 

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.