Third-Party OPRA Requests Available to Records Seekers

In a defeat for the Christie Administration, a New Jersey appeals court ruled on Jan. 27, 2017 that government-record seekers may have access to document requests filed by third parties.

The Appellate Division held in Scheeler v. Office of the Governor that the administration erroneously relied on dicta in a 2005 case to justify not releasing third-party requests under the Open Public Records Act.

The appeals court ruling affirms a decision by Mercer County Assignment Judge Mary Jacobson and $29,000 in attorney’s fees so far.

MARC partner Bruce S. Rosen, pro bono counsel for the ACLU of New Jersey Foundation, represented the plaintiff, Harry Scheeler.

The citizen activist had asked the governor’s office for OPRA requests it received in January 2014 as well as requests, from Sept. 1, 2013 to Feb. 10, 2014, about the closure of George Washington Bridge lanes. Scheeler also filed OPRA requests with a host of state agencies, most anonymously.

His requests were denied by the governor’s office under Gannett N.J. Partners, LP v. County of Middlesex, a 2005 appeals court ruling, and on the ground that OPRA allows denials of anonymous requests.

But Jacobson found that the Gannett discussion about third-party requests was dicta and not binding precedent. She did allow the government to redact personal information from the records.

The appeals court said OPRA does not bar disclosure of requests, adding that the defendants did not cite a statute, legislative action, executive order or court rule to back up their claim.

The court also said the plaintiffs made their request with sufficient specificity, rejecting the defendants’ contention.

Rosen said the requests at issue are public in many other states and under the Freedom of Information Act. They were allowed in New Jersey from the beginning of OPRA in 2002 until 2013, after the first OPRA responses were produced in the George Washington Bridge case. At that point, the administration declared such requests improper.

Read sample news coverage of the decision.

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