NEWARK – After a hearing this morning, Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson ordered the Christie Administration to turn over by August 15th records requested by a government transparency activist who wanted to review requests others had made in the wake of the Bridgegate scandal.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey represents Harry Scheeler of Cape May County, who has been auditing local, county and state agencies for years to see if they are compliant with the Open Public Records Act (OPRA). Scheeler conducts his audits by requesting – and receiving – records of all Open Public Records Act requests submitted to various government agencies.
Earlier this year, however, Scheeler received a much different response to a request that he and fellow activists, as well as journalists, consider routine. He requested copies of all records requests filed in relation to the closure of the George Washington Bridge, as well as all requests for particular periods. In a departure from previous years, several state agencies said they could not turn over these records, despite having turned over the same kinds of records in previous years, by incorrectly claiming they are exempt from OPRA due to privacy concerns.
“Today, the court rejected the state’s attempts to block New Jerseyans from examining indisputably public records,” said attorney Bruce S. Rosen, a partner at McCusker, Anselmi, Rosen and Carvelli, P.C., who argued the case on behalf of the ACLU-NJ. “The court correctly found that there is no legal basis to keep information about requests for public records secret. Just as they did last year, state agencies must again produce OPRA request forms for the public to examine.”
The lawsuit, filed May 5, challenged the denial (PDF) of records from nine state agencies, including the Office of the Governor. Scheeler’s request to the governor’s office asked for a copy of “all OPRA requests submitted to this office in January 2014” and all “OPRA requests submitted to this office concerning the closure of the George Washington Bridge.” Scheeler also requested all OPRA requests made in the previous 90 days at various points from the Motor Vehicle Commission, Alcoholic Beverage Control, Military and Veterans Affairs, New Jersey Treasury, Department of Law and Public Safety, Department of Education and New Jersey State Police, all of which claimed the records were exempt from OPRA.
The court, in rejecting the State’s claim that people should have an expectation of privacy in making public records requests, pointed out that many agencies notify requestors on the request form itself that the form may be considered a public record.
“We’re pleased that transparency prevailed today,” said Jeanne LoCicero, ACLU Deputy Legal Director. “In a democracy, the public’s interest in examining and understanding the workings of government is paramount. The public has a right to basic information about how the government carries out its obligations. We hope that the state will renew its commitment to open government and take steps to ensure that it meets its obligations under state law, regardless of the political climate.”
The court required state agencies to hand over the documents by August 15, 2014.
The case, filed in Mercer County Superior Court of New Jersey, is captioned Scheeler v. Office of the Governor, et. al.