N.J. high court rules university legal clinics exempt from public records law

NEW JERSEY — Records related to the cases of legal clinics at public law schools are not subject to New Jersey’s public records law, under a new state Supreme Court ruling.

Thursday’s opinion came in a dispute involving a law clinic at Rutgers Law School-Newark and a mall developer.

The developer, Sussex Commons Associates, sought documents from the law clinic concerning its representation of a private group that opposed plans to build an outlet mall, according to the court’s opinion.

Sussex Commons requested 18 different types of records from the Rutgers Environmental Litigation Clinic under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA) in 2006.

The request included documents showing how the law clinic was funded by Rutgers University, copies of bills from the clinic, and correspondence between the law clinic and other entities.

Rutgers denied the request, but later turned over the financial records.

The trial court ruled that the law clinic was exempt from the public records act, but an appellate court reversed that decision. The opinion Thursday from the state’s highest court ends the case.

The Supreme Court said there is no question that Rutgers University is subject to the public records act, but that this case presents a narrower issue: whether records related to clinical cases at public law schools are subject to the act.

The public records act is designed to allow citizens to obtain documents that “record the workings of a government in some way,” according to the court’s opinion. Clinical legal programs, however, do not perform any governmental functions, the court ruled.

“As a result, we do not see how it would further the purposes of OPRA to allow public access to documents related to clinical cases,” Justice C.J. Rabner wrote for the unanimous court.

The court made clear, however, that records of the clinic’s public funding – which Rutgers disclosed and were not at issue in the litigation – are public documents.

Justice Barry Albin wrote a concurring opinion in which he argued that legal clinics are subject to the public records law, but the law’s exemptions for attorney-client information and education records nonetheless shield the requested information.

“I reach the same destination as the majority but by the pathway of a plain reading of the statute,” Albin wrote.

Mark Caramanica, freedom of information director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said he agreed with the concurring opinion.

He said the court didn’t need to go so far as to say the clinic wasn’t subject to the public records law because existing protections would have limited what records the law clinic would have to release.

“[It’s an] extreme way to handle the matter,” he said.

Walter Luers, president of the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, said that as a general matter, “it’s always disappointing to see the scope of agencies covered by OPRA to be narrowed.”

He said he didn’t see this decision as being particularly important because most of what goes on in a law clinic would be considered privileged information anyway.

Greg Trevor, a Rutgers spokesman, said the university was “pleased that the court interpreted the statute in a manner that recognizes the academic environment in which this case arose.”

Kevin Kelly, the attorney for Sussex Commons, could not be reached for comment.

By Taylor Moak, SPLC staff writer

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