On May 16, 2018, the Appellate Division approved for publication a decision ruling that citizens from states outside New Jersey also have standing to obtain New Jersey’s public records under the Open Public Records Act (“OPRA”). The opinion—Scheeler v. Atlantic County Municipal Joint Insurance Fund, No. A-2092-15T2—was rendered in connection with three consolidated appeals in which the trial courts below came to conflicting conclusions about the scope of OPRA and who had standing to request documents pursuant to OPRA.
The pivotal language in dispute was the first sentence in the first paragraph of OPRA declaring it to be New Jersey’s public policy that “government records shall be readily accessible for inspection, copy, or examination by the citizens of this State.” N.J.S.A. § 47:1A-1. Despite this seemingly unambiguous language limiting OPRA’s rights to New Jersey citizens, the court disagreed. It rooted its rationale in other more specific sections of OPRA that had no such limiting language, the policy preference to construe the right to access broadly, OPRA’s history and purpose, and the fear of producing an absurd result.
In so holding, the court found that it owed no deference to a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision in McBurney v. Young, 569 U.S. 221 (2013) that referenced OPRA as one of several state open records statutes that limited access to citizens of its state. The court found that the U.S. Supreme Court’s reference was dicta and not binding.
Scheeler is an impactful ruling with wide-reaching implications that had amici arguments on both sides. While Scheeler does represent a significant victory for public access, helping entities such as out-of-state news organizations, local New Jersey municipalities appearing as amici feared that this ruling “would place an undue burden on their limited resources.” The Scheeler court recognized the municipalities’ concerns, but it declared that “[c]oncerns about OPRA’s practical ramifications should be directed to the Legislature.” Because of the significant public interest in the court’s holding on this legal issue, the New Jersey Supreme Court may grant certification if a petition is filed.