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Fort Bend County, At Large
By Cheryl Skinner

This column expresses the personal opinions/views of the writer. If you would like to express your opinions/views regarding the column, write a SIGNED letter to the editor. Name can be withheld by request with a valid day time phone number.


 

Looking for “scathing”

scath_ing adj. - Bitterly denunciatory; harshly critical: “a scathing tract on the uselessness of war” (Pierre Brodin). Harmful or painful; injurious.

That is the definition for the word “scathing”—a pretty simple and commonly used word in the English language. Now, with that said, I can tell our readers I spent the better part of a two day weekend reading and re-reading the opinion of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott in regards to whether or not Fort Bend County Clerk Dianne Wilson (and the hundreds of other county clerk’s across the state) can legally redact Social Security numbers from official documents or whether legally the clerk’s can post these personal numbers on the Internet or anywhere for public view.

The reason I read and re-read the lengthy opinion is two-fold. For one thing the opinion says “no” to posting Social Security numbers on the Internet or anywhere else for that matter, sort of; and number two because I saw one reporter’s rendition of the decision and he said it was “scathing” and emphasized that Dianne Wilson could be charged with a criminal offense for each release of a Social Security number (we are talking thousands of offenses). Now that makes Wilson sound like a hardened criminal and appears to suggest that the Texas Attorney General, in his opinion to now retired County Attorney Bud Childers (at Ms. Wilson’s request, I might note) is aimed at shooting Wilson in the foot and putting her behind bars for at least 100 years for posting the documents, heretofore, considered “public information” on the Internet.

OK—so I gleaned the AG’s report for this sometimes scathing information. I found “confusing”; I found “conflicting”; I found “opinionated” (which is what this is—an opinion); I found “contradictory”; I found snippets of federal law and I found the amendment to 552.147 of the Public Information Act (the “PIA”) that prompted Wilson to seek the opinion that is now created havoc across the state. I found a whole lot of defining words for the content of the AG’s opinion, but unless I have gotten seriously de-sensitized in my 30 years in this business—the one word I could not find a fitting response to was “scathing.” No where, no how, nada, zip!

So, I thought about it for a while. Actually, I guess if you look at this objectively, the AG looked at a gazillion laws, a few previous AG opinions, federal laws pertaining to privacy and the release of public information and finally to the amendment that created the question in the first place. He then, according to the back and forth synopsis that ended in a small “conclusion” looked at the “possible” intent of lawmakers in Washington DC and in Austin, Texas when various, often conflicting bills and amendments were turned into law. Taking all of this into consideration, he rendered the requested “opinion.”

Now Wikpedia defines opinion quite well: An opinion is a person’s ideas and thoughts towards something. It is an assessment, judgment or evaluation of something. An opinion is not a fact, because opinions are either not falsifiable, or the opinion has not been proven or verified.

AG defines opinion

Ironically when all of the drama was unfolding in Austin, our own Michael Fredrickson was in Austin with the Fort Bend Chamber Leadership group listening to Greg Abbott, who was guest speaker. And even more ironic is the fact that Michael broached Abbott on just what an AG opinion is and how much clout it has. Michael says he was always hearing about an official requesting an AG’s opinion, so he asked Abbott if an official AG opinion is accepted as law. Michael said from what he understood Abbott to say, an AG opinion is generally accepted until it is challenged in a court of law.

In other words, Abbott, while wielding a lot of clout and respected by many is simply rendering an influential “opinion.” Granted it is based on law and apparently extensively researched, but no matter how you cut it—it is the opinion of one individual. And, from all the paperwork and memos I’ve seen sailing through the internet this week, there are just a whole lot of attorneys out there disputing Abbott’s opinion already. There will be more, you can bet on it.

You can also bet lawmakers in Austin will be scurrying to find a solution to the AG’s opinion because it seems rather far-fetched to believe that all county clerk’s offices throughout the state will be shut down and all of the clerks in the state of Texas will be charged with felony offenses and billions upon billions of dollars will go to defend them. All they really need to do is ask the same question a different way and that alone will probably produce a different “opinion” based on the same but differently considered criteria.

Now, what other media types are going to do about defining scathing and attributing this whole fiasco to Dianne Wilson when dozens of county clerks across the state have posted public records on the Internet and the other 200 or more have made all of this information readily available to the walk in public under compliance with the Public Information Law is beyond me.

 

Contact skinnerc1@ev1.net, if you would like to express your opinions/views regarding the column. Write a SIGNED letter to the editor with valid day time phone number--name can be withheld by request.

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