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 notsubject to New Jersey’s public records law, under a new state Supreme Courtruling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Supreme Court said there is no question that RutgersUniversity is subject to the public records act, but that this case presents anarrower issue: whether records related to clinical cases at public law schoolsare subject to the act.

The public records act is designed to allow citizens toobtain documents that “record the workings of a government in some way,”according to the court’s opinion. Clinical legal programs, however, do notperform any governmental functions, the court ruled.

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

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

Justice Barry Albin wrote a concurring opinion in which heargued that legal clinics are subject to the public records law, but the law’sexemptions for attorney-client information and education records nonethelessshield the requested information.

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

Mark Caramanica, freedom of informationdirector for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said he agreedwith the concurring opinion.

He said the court didn’t need to go so faras to say the clinic wasn’t subject to the public records law because existingprotections would have limited what records the law clinic would have torelease.

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

Walter Luers, president of the New JerseyFoundation for Open Government, said that as a general matter, “it’salways disappointing to see the scope of agencies covered by OPRA to benarrowed.”

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

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

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

By Taylor Moak, SPLC staff writer