Updated: Jul 9, 2020
Recently, the Maryland Court of Appeals, the highest state court in Maryland, ruled on the confidentially of nutrient management plan summaries on file with the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA).
The background of the case involves requests under the Public Information Act from the Waterkeeper Alliance and Assateague Coastkeeper to MDA to disclose certain nutrient management plan summaries on file with MDA for farms on the Eastern Shore. Maryland Farm Bureau (MFB) had filed actions to enjoin (a judicial action to prevent something from happening) MDA from releasing the plan summaries without first redacting personal identifying information from the plan summaries. MFB’s argument was based on the assumption that the act requiring MDA to keep the plan summaries on file also required them to do so in a manner that protected an individual’s identity for 3 years. MFB argued the same act required the redaction of personal identifying information from plan summaries over 3 years old as well.
On a prior appeal, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals had ruled that MDA was required to not only redact information that could be used to identify the person the plan was developed for from the current plans on file, but also those plans older than 3 years. Waterkeeper and Assateague Coastkeeper appealed that decision to the Court of Appeals.
While I would like to start describing here how the MD Court of Appeals either agreed or disagreed with the lower court’s ruling, the court did not in fact have that option. The court instead focused on whether there was jurisdiction to hear the appeal. Jurisdiction means the official power to hear a case and make a legal decision or judgment. In order to hear a case, courts need to have jurisdiction over the alleged wrong. For example, you live next door to Ned and his happy go lucky attitude just annoys you. You decide to sue Ned to not be so annoying. A court would have no jurisdiction to hear this because you have no legal basis to sue Ned, being annoying is not a cause of action. Now if Ned “borrows” your lawnmower and never returns it, then you would have a case that would give a court jurisdiction. Here the case would be theft, an area courts traditionally have jurisdiction over.
In the Waterkeeper case, the Court of Appeals found that there was no final judgment from the circuit court. The circuit court had issued orders in 2009 and in 2011 but these orders did not resolve all the issues between the parties. Because the circuit court had issued no final judgment, the court of appeals lacked the jurisdiction to hear the appeal and dismissed the case.
So what does this mean for the confidentiality of nutrient management plans in Maryland? The parties have to start over at the circuit court level, receive a final order, and start the long appeals process over again. Is this the outcome either party wanted? Probably not, because both have spent time, money, and other resources to prove their side of the matter. As the recent ruling shows, this is an issue that is not going away in Maryland for some time.