The Appellate Division ruled on Tuesday that a person seeking records under the state’s Open Public Records Act does not have to be a resident of the state.
In a published opinion covering a trio of consolidated cases, a three-judge panel said the state Legislature, in enacting OPRA, didn’t mean for it to appeal to in-state residents only.
“[W]e conclude that the right to request records under OPRA is not limited to ‘citizens’ of New Jersey,” said Appellate Division Judge Susan Reisner for the appeals court. Judges Richard Hoffman and Jessica Mayer joined in the ruling.
The ruling involved three cases: two brought by a former New Jersey resident, Harry Scheeler, and the other by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights nonprofit organization. Scheeler, who moved from New Jersey to North Carolina in 2014, sought access to records involving lawsuits settled by Atlantic County and Cape May County. The lawyers’ committee was seeking documents relating to Atlantic City school attendance and disciplinary data.
In separate rulings, Burlington County Superior Court Judge Ronald Bookbinder and Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Nelson Johnson reached different conclusions. Bookbinder ruled in favor of Scheeler, while Nelson ruled against the lawyers’ committee, on the grounds of standing.
The appeals court said the plaintiffs do have standing, even if they are not located in New Jersey, relying on the statutory language to reach that conclusion.
“In using the term ‘citizens of this State,’ the Legislature arguably created an ambiguity in N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1,” Reisner wrote. “However, we conclude that any ambiguity is easily resolved. Reading N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 sensibly, bearing in mind the context in which the phrase ‘citizens of this State’ is used, the terms the Legislature used in the rest of OPRA, and considering the statute’s history and purpose, we cannot conclude that the Legislature intended to preclude out-of-state residents from making OPRA requests.”
As a matter of policy, the Issue of standing should be left to the Legislature and is not an issue for the court to consider, Reisner said.
The lead attorney for the plaintiffs, C.J. Griffin, said the ruling will have a significant impact.
“Had the Appellate Division ruled differently, out-of-state news agencies would have been precluded from filing OPRA requests in New Jersey. Even out-of-state persons who own summer homes or rental homes in New Jersey would have been precluded from filing OPRA requests, even though they clearly have an interest in doing so,” said Griffin, of Hackensack’s Pashman Stein Walder Hayden.
The defendants’ lead attorney, John Birchmeier of Birchmeier & Powell in Tuckahoe, didn’t return a call for comment.