You don’t have to be a resident of New Jersey to request public records in the state, a three-judge appellate panel ruled Wednesday in what is being portrayed as a win for out-of-state journalists, second-homeowners and any other interested parties.
Judge Susan Reisner said Harry Scheeler, 39, of Concord, North Carolina, a former Woodbine, Cape May County resident who had made more than 100 requests for Cape May City records under the New Jersey Open Public Records Act, is entitled to them after a Superior Court judge ruled two years ago he wasn’t because he lived in another state.
“Because the more specific provisions of OPRA refer to ‘any person,’ and because OPRA is to be construed broadly to achieve the Legislature's over-arching goal of making public records freely available, we conclude that the right to request records under OPRA is not limited to ‘citizens’ of New Jersey,” Reisner wrote in her opinion.
A request for comment from Cape May officials was not immediately returned.
“I feel good,” Scheeler said during a phone interview. “I thought the first ruling was absurd.”
Scheeler said a lot of people have interest in New Jersey and its municipal governments even if they don’t live here full time or at all, citing seasonal residents and renters, as well as journalists in Philadelphia and New York City.
While the decision opens the door for anyone in the country who wants to access public documents in New Jersey, the victory isn’t so sweet for Scheeler, who said it’s been so long since his request was first made that the documents may not even be helpful anymore.
“Whatever they are, they’re probably no longer relevant,” Scheeler said. “That’s where you win cases, but you kind of lose them, because they got what they wanted.”
“It buys them the time that they need, and they’re happy to pay the money, because it’s not their money, it’s the taxpayer money,” he said of the lawsuit.
Superior Court Judge Nelson Johnson ruled two years ago that Scheeler was not entitled to any public records because he didn’t live in New Jersey. Scheeler had sued the city for access to legal bills pertaining to Convention Hall, among other records, largely on behalf of city residents who were intimidated by public officials and feared reprisals if they solicited the records under their own names, he said.
The Press of Atlantic City reached out to Johnson for comment. Chris Koos, assistant civil division manager for Atlantic County Superior Court in Atlantic City, declined on Johnson's behalf.
John Paff, a Cumberland County native and an open public records advocate, said the new ruling is sensible.
“The idea that you need to be a citizen of New Jersey in order to make an OPRA request is antiquated,” he said, citing journalists all over the country who may have an interest in New Jersey government, but also landlords who would have an interest where they own property.
Paff described the win as getting the upper hand in the tug-of-war between the media and the public on one side and the government on the other.
“The flag goes back and forth, and, this time, it’s pulled a little bit over to our side,” he said.
But it isn’t over for Scheeler, who doesn’t have access to the documents yet.
Even though it’s been ruled he is entitled to them, the case goes to a trial court for a decision as to whether the documents were public records in the first place, he said.
But Scheeler is confident the court will rule in his favor.
“I’m 100 percent sure we’ll prevail,” he said.