A Midwestern federal appeals court tossed a case involving an Indiana town suing its own city council to block the council from getting audio of police calls.
The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday vacated a lower court decision, dismissed the case and noted that a state court "is free to resolve the dispute on its own."
Judge Frank Easterbrook, who the late Justice Antonin Scalia once suggested should replace him on the Supreme Court, wrote the appeals court's opinion that noted, "The caption of this case says much of what is necessary to its resolution: the City of South Bend, Indiana, is suing one of its constituent parts." Neither party knew of any precedent for the case, he wrote.
"A suit by one whole branch of the federal government against another is not possible; a suit by the executive branch of a city versus the legislative branch is equally improper," Easterbrook wrote. "State courts may have authority to resolve an intramural dispute, but otherwise it must be worked out the same way Congress and the president resolve their differences: by politics."
At issue are audio recordings of police officers saying things the police department's communications director found "inappropriate."
The South Bend Police Department records some of its officers' equipment at its headquarters and started recording the phone line of a captain in its risk management bureau in 2005, according to the court's opinion. When a different policeman was promoted to the same position, the recording equipment was switched to a vacant office of the captain of the department's investigative division.
When officer Brian Young was promoted to fill the investigative division's captain position in 2010, he did not know his office phone was being recorded. After the recording system crashed in 2011, the police department's communications director, Karen DaPaepe, listened to recordings of some of Young's calls to make sure the repair had worked and heard things she found troubling. She took her concerns to the chief of police, who knew of the department's recordings and "used some of the information to threaten" a different officer.
Federal and state officials started investigating the matter, and the South Bend legislature sought access to the recordings. The police did not provide the city council with the recordings, so the legislature subpoenaed records from the city's officials, who said that complying with the request would violate federal wiretap laws. The city then filed the suit and sued various other officers "for good measure," according to Easterbrook's opinion, to avoid being declared liable for their actions.
The case now goes back to Indiana's courts.