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Thursday, July 25, 2024

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Judge: Anyone May Access Records

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By Karen Knight

CAPE MAY – A New Jersey Superior Court judge has determined that a Georgia man can access state records under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA). That differs with a decision rendered earlier this year by an Atlantic/Cape May County Superior Court judge who said out-of-state residents have no right to benefits of the act. 
Peter Heimlich, an Atlanta-based investigative blogger, filed a lawsuit in June challenging the Educational Information and Resource Center’s (EIRC) denial for records filed under OPRA because he was not a state resident. Attorney C.J. Griffin, of Pashman Stein Walder Hayden, represented Heimlich and specializes in First Amendment law.
Griffin also represented the North Carolina man who sought records from the City of Cape May mostly related to a police department compensatory time issue.
In that case, Superior Court Judge Nelson C. Johnson determined that Harry Scheeler, who lives in North Carolina, had no right to access city records under an OPRA lawsuit because the state Legislature did not intend that a “non-resident, non-taxpaying, out-of-state gadfly” be entitled to its benefits. 
It was the first case in the state in which a non-citizen had been denied access to public records.
In delivering her ruling orally Oct. 13, Assignment Judge Georgia Curio, of the Cumberland-Salem-Gloucester vicinage, joined judges from Ocean and Burlington counties who have ruled that “any person” may request government records under OPRA.
Griffin said the case of Scheeler v. Cape May currently is on appeal; the case has been briefed but has not been argued.
“The public benefits when government records are made publicly available, regardless of whether they were requested by a local resident or by a journalist who wishes to publish a news story on a newsworthy event occurring in New Jersey,” Griffin said.
According to Heimlich, he has filed other records requests in the Garden State without any problems so he “wasn’t thrilled to learn about Judge Nelson Johnson’s ruling in Scheeler v. Cape May. My reaction was, ‘Yesterday I could get my records requests filled, but today I can’t?'”
As soon as the court signs the order, EIRC have seven business days to produce the records Heimlich requested for a story he is investigating.
To contact Karen Knight, email kknight@cmcherald.com.

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