FREEDOM OF INFORMATION COMMISSION
OF THE STATE OF CONNECTICUT

 

 

In the Matter of a Request
for Advisory Opinion


 

     Advisory Opinion   #79

Robert H. Boone, Applicant

    

 

 

 

On March 14, 1990, the Commission considered and agreed to respond to a request for an advisory opinion filed by Robert H. Boone. Because of the nature of the request, the Commission determined it would consider this matter as a petition for declaratory ruling under Conn. Gen. Stat. 4-176.

 

In his request, the applicant states that the Vital Records Section of the State Department of Health Services asks a requester to submit certain forms to obtain a copy of death and marriage certificates (forms VS‑39D 3‑88 and VS39M 3‑88, respectively). The form for obtaining a death certificate asks for the name and address of the requester, the requester's relationship to the person named in the certificate and the reason for making the request. The form also states "[f]or the protection of the individual, certificates of vital events are not open to public inspection." In addition to all the above information, the form for obtaining a marriage record states that "[i]f the person making this request is not the person named in the certificate," the requester must give his or her relationship to the person named in the certificate and the reason for making the request.

 

Furthermore, according to the applicant, a number of municipal clerks have indicated they either discourage, or will not honor, requests to inspect or copy death or marriage certificates from members of the public who are unrelated to the subjects of the certificates.

 

The applicant believes the use of forms containing the information described above constitutes a violation of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act and is in contravention of the decision in Commissioner of Health v. FOI Commission, No. 128278 (Ct. Cmn. Pls., Hartford County, February 7, 1977, Satter, J.). The applicant also believes that the public officials charged with keeping death and marriage certificates* violate the act and the court decision if they discourage, or refuse to honor, requests for such records.


 

In essence, the applicant seeks a declaratory ruling, binding on all officials having custody of vital statistics in Connecticut, as to the applicability of the FOI Act and Commission decisions with respect to death and marriage certificates under the circumstances presented above.

 

-B-

 

In its final decision in Baldwin v, Registrar of Vital Statistics of Stamford, docket #FIC 76-15 (April 14, 1976), the Commission found that marriage and death records are not exempt from public disclosure. In paragraph 3 of its order in that case, the Commission directed the Commissioner of Health (now Commissioner of Health Services) to:

 

"notify all personnel in the State Department of Health concerned with such [death and marriage] records and all registrars of vital statistics that marriage license certificates, death certificates and alphabetical indices of marriages and death are available for inspection or copying pursuant to [the FOI Act]."

 

That decision was appealed to court in what has become known as Commissioner of Health v. FOI Commission, supra. In that case, the court upheld the Commission's final decision both as a matter of law and as a matter of sound public policy. In specifically addressing paragraph 3 of the Commission's order, the court said:

 

"The Commissioner [of Health] was a party to the proceeding before the F.O.I.C. and he has the public duty to implement the decision of the F.O.I.C. uniformly throughout the state. In any event, the decision of this court will be made known to Registrars and be binding upon them."

 

_______________________________________________________________________

* Conn. Gen. Stat. 7‑36 defines "registrar of vital statistics" as the "registrar of births, marriages and deaths or any public official charged with the care of returns relating to vital statistics." Conn. Gen. Stat. 19a‑40 establishes the Commissioner of Health Services as the "superintendent of registration of vital statistics." Generally, unless local registrars of vital statistics are elected or appointed under special laws, town clerks are ex officio registrars of vital statistics within their respective municipalities. Conn. Gen. Stat. 7‑37.

 

 


 

Id . at p. 8.

 

-C-

 

It seems to the Commission that since these decisions were rendered some time ago, their intent and thrust, indeed their very existence, may have become lost on those who now function as registrars of vital statistics. Be that as it may, these decisions still represent the law of Connecticut with respect to death and marriage records and will be enforced accordingly.

 

Applying this law to the circumstances presented here, it is the Commission's opinion that the portions of forms VS‑39D 3‑88 and VS‑39M 3‑88 cited above place unauthorized conditions precedent on access to public records and contain inaccurate statements as to the status of the law with respect to death and marriage certificates, In particular, there is no statutory provision requiring a requester to give his or her name or address (unless, of course, the requester asks that the documents be mailed) as a condition precedent to inspecting or receiving a copy of a death or marriage certificate. Nor is there a similar requirement that a requester state his or her relationship to the subject of the record or to state the reason for the request. And, although a custodian of public records may take necessary steps to protect the physical integrity of such records, it is incorrect to state that the records of the vital events of death and marriage are not open to the public.

 

Furthermore, it is the Commission's opinion that it would constitute a violation of the FOI Act and the Commission's decision in #FIC 76‑15, as upheld in Commissioner of Health v. FOI Commission, for any registrar of vital statistics either to dishonor a request to inspect or copy death or marriage certificates or to discourage a requester from asserting his her right to such records. Indeed, the failure to comply with the law in this respect would be a violation of a public official's sacred trust to faithfully discharge, according to law, the duties of his or her office. See oaths of office set forth in Conn. Gen. Stat, 1‑25.

 

-D-

 

Therefore, on the basis of the foregoing, the Commission hereby issues the following declaratory ruling as to the applicability of the FOI Act and its final decision in #FIC76‑15 with respect to death and marriage certificates in the circumstances presented:

 

1. Conn. Gen. Stat. 1‑15 and 1‑19 preclude the Vital Records Section of the State Department of Health Services from continuing to use those portions of form VS‑39D 3‑88 and VS‑39M 3‑88, identified above, which require a requester, as a condition precedent to inspecting or receiving a copy of a death or marriage certificate, to state (a) his or her name or address; (b) his or her relationship to the subject of the record; or (c) the reason for the request.

 

 

 

2. Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-15 and 1-19 preclude the Vital Records Section of the State Department of Health Services from continuing to use those portions of form VS-39D 3-88 and VS-39M 3-88, identified above, which state that the records of the vital events of death and marriage are not open to the public.

 

3. It would constitute a violation of Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-15 and 1-19 for any registrar of vital statistics either to dishonor a request to inspect or copy death or marriage certificates or to discourage a requester from asserting his or her right to such records,

 

4. In order to effectuate the Commission's decision in #FIC 76-15 and the court's decision in Commissioner of Health v. FOI Commission, supra, the Vital Records Section of the State Department of Health Services is hereby directed to forthwith (a) notify all of its personnel concerned with death and marriage records, as well as all registrars of vital statistics, of this opinion and ruling by providing each of them with a copy of same and (b) certify to the Commission, when done, that compliance with this paragraph of the ruling has been completed.

 

5. The Commission notes that when the issue of the use of forms VS‑39D 3‑88 and VS‑39M 388 with the offending language was brought to the attention of the Vital Records Section of the State Department of Health Services that section took prompt action to correct the problem.

 

 

                                                                                            By Order of the Freedom of
                                                                                            Information Commission

                                                                                           

                                                                                ________________________
                                                                                            Curtis Cofield, Chairman

Dated: ___________________

 

Ordered:_________________

Karen Haggett,
Clerk