In 2016 a Michigan prisoner died under suspicious circumstances; he was allegedly involved in an altercation with another prisoner, and prison guards shocked him with a taser. Spencer Woodman, an independent journalist who reports nationally on criminal justice issues, learned that the entire incident was captured on video and requested a copy of the footage under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) refused to release the video, claiming that its disclosure would somehow undermine prison security. In 2017 the ACLU of Michigan filed a lawsuit on Woodman’s behalf, arguing that the state had no legitimate justification for keeping the video secret. During discovery, we learned that the MDOC staff has a policy of automatically denying all FOIA requests for videos, without even viewing the video in question to determine whether or how its disclosure would threaten security. In 2019 Michigan Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens ruled that MDOC’s policy was illegal and ordered the state to turn over the video footage. However, the judge then slashed the ACLU cooperating attorneys’ fees by 90% because the work was being done pro bono (i.e., without payment from the client), and we appealed. In 2021 the Court of Appeals ruled that we had only partially prevailed in the lawsuit. We appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case and in July 2023 ruled in our favor. By a vote of 5-2, the Court held that we had prevailed completely, and that attorneys’ fees cannot be reduced based on the pro bono nature of the work. The case has been remanded for recalculation of attorneys’ fees. (Woodman v. Michigan Department of Corrections; ACLU Attorney Dan Korobkin; Cooperating Attorneys Robert Riley, Marie Greenman, Olivia Vizachero, and Rian Dawson of Honigman.)


Defending liberty