Appeals court rules against UM in bid to keep immigration foe's documents private

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

The Michigan Court of Appeals has reversed a lower court's decision that has allowed the University of Michigan to withhold from public view documents donated by an anti-immigration activist.

The appeals court's ruling comes about 19 months after a state Court of Claims judge dismissed an immigration activist's lawsuit in November 2017 against UM over access to about 10 boxes of documents donated to the school by John Tanton, who is considered the architect of the modern anti-immigration movement.

John Tanton

The lawsuit was filed by Virginia-based immigration attorney Hassan M. Ahmad, who has sought access to all of the documents under the state's Freedom of Information Act. The university denied Ahmad's request, arguing since some of the materials were not to be opened until 2035 under an agreement with Tanton, they aren't public records and not subject to requests under the act.

But the appeals court ruled otherwise, saying: "Contrary to the ruling of the Court of Claims, the complaint states a valid claim that the papers are public records."

More: Lawyer fights UM to see immigration foe's papers

Philip Ellison, a Saginaw attorney who represents Ahmad, welcomed the decision.

"I think the court (of appeals) got it right," Ellison said Friday. "The court's ultimate ruling was that the trial judge threw the case out just too quickly."

Officials for the university were reviewing the court's opinion and will consider options for additional action, said UM spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen on Friday.

Ellison said UM has 42 days to ask the Michigan Supreme Court to take a look at the case.

“If they don’t do that, the case goes back to the court of claims for normal trial activities,” he said.

It will be a couple of months before any new action happens, he said.

Tanton, 85, a retired eye surgeon, is the founder of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an anti-immigration group. He also helped launch a dozen groups, including two main players in today's anti-immigration movement, NumbersUSA and the Center for Immigration Studies. He lives in a Petoskey nursing home.

More: Mich. man who led anti-immigration fight nearly forgotten

He donated to UM's Bentley Historical Library materials documenting his work as a political and environmental activist from 1960 through the 2000s. However, a condition of the donation is part of it is closed to research until April 2035.

Ahmad sued, lost and then appealed to the Court of Claims, which sided with the university. Ahmad then appealed that ruling.

"The court case basically establishes what's required for a person who is trying to get access to records, what they've got to do to get into court," Ellison said.

In the decision released this week, the Court of Appeals noted that questions had surrounded what constitutes "an official function" that compels the release of records under FOIA.

"An 'official function' of the Bentley Library, as intended under the FOIA, includes those authorized acts or operations that are expected of the library as it relates to its position as a public library," the court said.

The filing went on to address the university’s bylaws, which show that the Bentley Library’s historical collection is “maintained for the purpose of collecting, preserving, and making available to students manuscripts and other materials pertaining to the state, its institutions, and its social, economic, and intellectual development.”

The Court of Appeals noted UM had argued all three conditions — collecting, preserving and making available to students — had to be met in order for the items to qualify as a public record under FOIA.

"Importantly, plaintiff’s complaint can be read to allege that the Tanton papers were 'closed' to research until April 2035," the court said. "The clear implication is that the university was holding the papers with the intent to open them to research (and students) at that later time."