In Scheeler v. Atlantic County Municipal Joint Insurance Fund, et al., the Appellate Division weighed in on a long-simmering dispute regarding individuals that have the right to access New Jersey public records. Not surprisingly, the court’s decision favors expanded access.
In 2015, Harry Scheeler, an open records advocate who moved from New Jersey to North Carolina in 2014, filed an Open Public Records Act Request (OPRA) with the Atlantic County Municipal Joint Insurance Fund (Fund). The request sought records regarding legal bills submitted for payment stemming from lawsuits filed against Hamilton Township, Atlantic County. The Fund provided certain records, but withheld what it determined to be “confidential and privileged” memos involving ongoing litigation.
When Scheeler subsequently filed a complaint demanding full access, the Fund objected, in part because Scheeler was not a citizen of New Jersey. The matter was litigated and the trial court found that access to New Jersey public records was not limited to only New Jersey citizens.
Also in 2015, Scheeler filed a similar OPRA request with the City of Cape May which also resulted in litigation. However, that trial court dismissed the complaint, reasoning that only New Jersey citizens could request New Jersey public records under OPRA. The same court also dismissed a complaint filed by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law against the Atlantic City Board of Education, where the trial court applied the same rationale. Appeals from various parties were consolidated before the Appellate Division because of the contradictory opinions on the same point of law.
In weighing the arguments in this matter, the Appellate Division examined the statute, N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1, and noted that it did, in fact, expressly state that “government records shall be readily accessible for inspection, copying, or examination by the citizens of this State….”
In seeking to harmonize the text of the statute with legislative intent, the Appellate Division found support for its decision in the state’s legislative history. The court examined the language of the predecessor to OPRA, the “Right to Know Law,” and found when adopting the newer OPRA statute, the legislature replaced the term “citizen” with the term “person” in many parts of OPRA. Accordingly, the court reasoned that those changes signaled an intent to broaden rather than to limit public access to public records.
In addition, the court noted that, when the statute was read in its entirety, defining the term “citizen” to include only New Jersey residents would contravene the above legislative intent. The court reasoned that because the statute also requires state offices to protect personal information, protecting the personal information of citizens, while allowing the dissemination of a non-citizen’s personal information would constitute an absurd result. Therefore, the court held that it would be more logical to construe the term “citizen” in its more generic sense of person or individual, instead of resident.
Because this decision expands access to New Jersey public records to non-citizens, local boards of education may see an increase in OPRA requests. For additional information, board members may wish to speak to the board attorney or the NJSBA Legal and Labor Relations Services Department.