HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — The fate of legislation being pursued by the Newtown town clerk to restrict the public's access to death certificates appears to be in doubt as the General Assembly inches toward adjournment.
Newtown Town Clerk Debbie Aurelia has refused to release death certificates requested for the 26 victims of the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School and argues that information on death certificates can be misused, such as by identity thieves. Two bills on the topic are before the Legislature.
But time is running out and many bills still await approval, said Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, co-chairman of the General Assembly's Government Administration and Elections Committee, who said he's unsure whether the legislation will be brought up for a vote. The legislative session ends June 5.
"We're down to three-and-a-half weeks, and there are lots of bills trying to make it through that funnel," he said. "This may or may not be one of those."
Jutila said he hasn't heard recently from advocates of the legislation, and notes there remains strong opposition to the concept of placing limits on information that has been available to the public for centuries. One bill would impose a six-month waiting period before the public could obtain a recently deceased minor's death certificate, a proposal that was seen as a potential compromise. A second bill creates new "short" death certificates with limited information, including the person's name, gender, cause of death, and date and place of death, to be issued to the public.
There would be exemptions for next of kin, funeral directors and others.
Other information on death certificates is currently released to the public, such as the decedent's mother's maiden name, where the person was buried and whether the body was embalmed.
Aurelia said Tuesday she has received about a half-dozen requests for the public documents but has not yet released them, saying she doesn't want to issue the certificates to anyone "other than the people that it's vital to."
Aurelia originally pushed for legislation this session exempting all death certificates from public disclosure without time limits. She maintains it is not the kind of information the state's open records law sought to protect.
"I know this is what people want," she said. "They don't realize all this information is a public record. They don't realize it."
But Colleen Murphy, executive director and general counsel of Connecticut's Freedom of Information Commission, contends that her agency has not heard any complaints about problems arising from the public release of death certificates.
"We have felt that there wasn't a need to change the law, although we certainly understand the place where people are coming from in introducing it," she said. "These records have been available for all time, basically, and haven't presented any issues we've known about."
Besides open records advocates and media outlets, genealogists have opposed efforts to restrict access to the documents.
Jutila said he has read the commentary and understands the arguments against the legislation.
"It's a tough call," he said. "The question for us, was, how do we balance the public's right to know to the additional emotional distress already experienced by grieving families."
Aurelia said she still hopes lawmakers will pass both bills this year and plans to remind legislators of the proposed legislation.
"There's still a little bit of time," she said. "I'm not giving up."
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