Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott this morning issued a letter that allows county clerks statewide to release public documents with private information on them, such as Social Security numbers.
Abbott earlier had issued an opinion on a law passed in 2005 that directed clerks to black out Social Security numbers before releasing copies of documents to the public. Abbott said that, indeed, Social Security numbers are private and warned that clerks who did not redact private information could face jail time and a fine.
County Clerks, knowing that millions of their public records bore Social Security numbers, went a little berserk over the last several days, closing their Internet document viewing sites, turning away people who make their livings poring over these documents and in at least two cases, draping their records in yellow crime scene tape to make darned clear to the public that they meant business.
Recognizing the Legislature had passed a law with potentially millions of unintended consequences, Rep. Jim Keffer on Tuesday filed House Bill 2061, repealing the Social Security exception and the redaction requirement. The bill was scheduled for a hearing today before the House Energy Resources Committee. The bill is expected to get a quick push, and if two-thirds of the 150 members of the House approve, the law could be struck down immediately.
Here is the text of the Attorney General’s letter:
Attorney General of Texas Greg Abbott
New Information about SSN Opinion
The Honorable Roy Cordes, Jr.Fort Bend County Attorney301 Jackson Street, Suite 728Richmond, Texas 77469-3 108
Opinion No. GA-0519
Re : Release and redaction of social security numbers under the Public Information Act, section 552.147 of the Government Code (RQ-0418-GA)
Dear Mr. Cordes:
In Attorney General Opinion GA-0519, we opined that the social security number (“SSN”) of a living person is confidential and subject to mandatory exception from required disclosure under section 552.147(a) of the Public Information Act (“PIP”). See generally Tex. Att’y Gen. Op. No. GA-0519 (2007). As we stated in our opinion, ” … Texans have a legitimate expectation that their SSNs will be kept confidential.” See id. at 5. The plain text and legislative history of TEX. GOV’T CODE ANN. Section 552.147 (Vernon Supp. 2006), coupled with numerous other state and federal statutes, all clearly protect the confidentiality of SSNs, and thereby prohibit governmental bodies from disclosing SSNs under the PIA.
Immediately after the opinion was issued, legislative leaders contacted this office with serious concerns about logistical implications surrounding the rapid implementation of statutorily-mandated SSN confidentiality. Complex problems were faced by county clerks responsible for decades-old documents that are frequently laden with SSNs. Some clerks were left grappling with transitioning to a law that ensures SSNs are always kept confidential. The real-world consequence was a virtual halt to a tremendous amount of business and commerce in Texas. In response to these problems, a number of legislators have stated their intention to take immediate action to address the issues and conclusions discussed in Opinion No. GA-0519.
In light of these developments, I hereby abate Opinion No. GA-0519 for a period of 60 days in order to allow the Legislature ample time for thorough deliberation and action. During the time of this abeyance, Opinion No. GA-0519 will have no force or effect.
Greg Abbott, Attorney General of Texas
My thanks to Paul Daraghy for telling me about this new development.