New Jersey has good, strong open-records laws and the courts have largely taken an appropriately expansive view in applying them.
Two recent court rulings continue that trend, helping ensure the public knows what its governments are doing.
In a unanimous ruling toward the end of last month, the state Supreme Court made clear that the privacy exception to the Open Public Records Act isn’t a handy excuse for officials to deny access.
The case was a minor dispute over a Bergen County auction of sports memorabilia it had seized in a criminal case. Only a quarter of it turned out to be genuine, and a local gadfly wanted the names and addresses of the 39 people who had winning bids in the auction. (The county had offered to return the money of purchasers and destroy the bogus stuff.)
The county claimed the bidders had an expectation of privacy, but the original trial judge ruled their information was public. Then an appellate court overturned, granting the privacy exception to the OPRA rules.
The Supreme Court opinion by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner would have none of that, ruling that in a public auction by the government, the public has a right to know what property was sold, at what price and to whom to guard against possible abuses. “If anything, the sale of government property at a public auction is the quintessential public event that calls for transparency,” he wrote for the court, adding that the bidders knew they were participating in a public auction and bidding on seized property forfeited to the government.
The decision was welcomed by open-government organizations, including Libertarians for Transparent Government, which filed a brief in the case. Its attorney said the top court “made it abundantly clear that OPRA’s privacy provision should be applied only in the unique cases where there is a truly legitimate privacy interest at state.”
In the other case, also last month, an appellate court ruled that OPRA’s right to obtain information isn’t limited to citizens of New Jersey, even though the act explicitly grants that right to citizens.
The judges said the Legislature intended OPRA to be construed broadly to make public records readily available. They also noted that elsewhere the act lists among privacy exceptions “citizen” medical records — so if the word wasn’t meant to designate the general public, the medical records of non-New Jersey citizens could be released, which doesn’t make sense.
The question of OPRA requests by those from outside New Jersey has yielded conflicting decisions by Superior Court judges and may end up at the Supreme Court yet. There are benefits to the appellate court’s view, including the ability of journalists and nonprofit organizations elsewhere to access New Jersey records. There is also a significant downside in that opportunistic serial filers of document requests can unduly burden local governments and be awarded fees when they sue.
More public access to government information is generally good, and if more documents from independent authorities and redevelopment agencies were subject to the law it would be very good.
But legislators may at some point need to address the cost of abusive records requests to citizens (the New Jersey resident kind) and taxpayers. Perhaps out-of-state OPRA applicants could be charged what it costs to fulfill their requests, and those within the government entity’s jurisdiction could get a limited number of records for free and more at a steep discount. That seems fair, since they’re already paying for that government entity.