OPRA Requestor Rights are Not Limited to Citizens of New Jersey

Scheeler v. Atlantic County Municipal Joint Insurance Fund, ___ N.J. Super. ___ (App. Div. 2018).  This  opinion by Judge Reisner was yet another case (actually, consolidated cases, which reached different results at the trial court level) under the Open Public Records Act, N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 to -13 (“OPRA”).  The issue was whether non-New Jersey citizens can invoke OPRA to obtain public records.  Applying de novo review of this pure legal issue, the panel concluded that non-New Jerseyans have standing to seek records under OPRA.

The issue arose because N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1, which announces the public policy of the State, declares the policy to be that “government records shall be readily accessible for inspection, copying, or examination by the citizens of this State” (emphasis added).  But OPRA does not use “citizens of this State” anywhere else, instead using “citizen,” alone (a term not defined in OPRA) one other time in the same statutory section, and elsewhere using “person” or “requestor” to refer to the one who seeks disclosure of public records.  Relatedly, in a section of OPRA that addresses the disclosure of personnel records, OPRA refers to the records of an “individual,” not limited to citizens of New Jersey.

Judge Reisner found that the phrase “citizens of this State” arguably created an ambiguity.  But she concluded that any such ambiguity was readily resolvable.  The use of all of the alternative terms made clear to the panel that OPRA rights were not limited to New Jersey requestors.  And it made no sense to treat public records, such as personnel records, of New Jersey citizens one way and those of non-New Jersey citizens another way.

Judge Reisner also compared OPRA with its predecessor, the Right to Know Law, a 1963 enactment.  That statute used “citizen” throughout, while OPRA (with the exception of section 1) used “person” instead.  The Supreme Court had noted, in N. Jersey Media Grp., Inc. v. Lyndhurst Tp., 229 N.J. 541 (2017), that OPRA took a “far broader approach” to disclosure than did the Right to Know Law, language in which Judge Reisner found further support for the result here.

Finally, the panel cited the language of section 1 that states that “any limitations on the right of access accorded by [OPRA] , shall be construed in favor of the public’s right of access.”  Thus, any doubts about a requestor’s standing should be resolved in favor of access.  That too supported the panel’s conclusion.

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