RESOUNDING WIN FOR GOVERNMENT TRANSPARENCY

A unanimous decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court has overturned a lower court holding that would have allowed the government to deny access to vast swathes of information kept on its computers. Click here to read the decision.

The lower court had interpreted the state Open Public Records Act, aka OPRA, as mandating public access only to discrete records and not to information per se.

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FIRST GORSUCH OPINION OPENS DOOR TO DEBT COLLECTION ABUSES

Justice Neil Gorsuch, the newest addition to the U.S. Supreme Court, recently authored his first opinion and it is one likely to have negative repercussions for large numbers of people who find themselves unable to pay their bills.

Henson v. Santander Consumer USA, decided on June 12, concerns the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act or FDCPA, a federal law that is meant to protect against abusive, unfair, and deceptive practices in the collection of consumer debt– debt incurred primarily for personal, family, or household purposes.

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NEW HOPE FOR anti-SLAPP BILL

The New Jersey Assembly has overwhelmingly passed a bill that would protect people who speak out on public issues from baseless lawsuits meant to intimidate them into silence.

The legislation, A-603, targets SLAPP suits, the shorthand for what are known as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.

SLAPP suits, which often occur in the context of opposition to real estate development projects, pitting people from the community against a wealthy corporation, are meant to deter opposition because of the high cost of defending them, even if they are eventually thrown out for lack merit or withdrawn once the developer or other SLAPP plaintiff has succeeded in quelling critics.

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CHIPPING AWAY AT OPRA

A bill moving through the New Jersey Legislature threatens to undermine the Open Public Records Act, known as OPRA.

OPRA’s defining characteristic and its great strength are its presumption of public access to all government records and the information they contain, except for 24 expressly exempted categories, and the ability to recover legal fees when access is wrongfully denied. The exemptions encompass such areas as personnel records; advisory, consultative or deliberative material; criminal investigation and victims’ records; trade secrets; security measures and procedures whose disclosure would jeopardize safety; and records subject to attorney -client privilege. A specific “Personal Identifying Information” exemption already exists for four kinds of crucial identifiers: Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, drivers’ license numbers and unlisted phone numbers.

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NJ JUSTICES TO DECIDE MAJOR OPEN RECORDS CASE

What is probably the most significant case in years affecting public access to government records and information was argued before the New Jersey Supreme Court on Feb. 28.

Unless the lower court decision Paff v. Galloway is reversed, members of the public will have diminished access under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA) to the vast quantities of information stored electronically in government computers.

The case is viewed as so critical to the public right of access to electronic data that it has drawn the participation of an international data rights group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), whose mission is defending civil liberties in the digital realm.

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John Paff, image via NJSPJ

At issue is an OPRA request for all emails sent during a two week period in June 2013 by the Township Clerk and Chief of Police of Galloway Township in Atlantic County. The requestor, John Paff, a longtime advocate for government transparency, did not seek the emails in their entirety but only a log or list of the sender, recipient, date, and subject for each of them.

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CHRIST CHRISTIE URGED TO PROTECT HEALTH CARE

An op-ed piece by Raymond Castro, a senior policy analyst with NJ Policy Perspective, explains why Governor Chris Christie should speak out against repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

Christie’s “most important legacy as Governor” was taking advantage of the ACA to expand Medicaid to cover more than half a million low-income New Jerseyans, but that legacy would be lost with repeal.

Further, repeal would undermine the major behavioral-health and substance-use disorder initiative Christie announced at his State of the State address on January 13, which relies on Medicaid funding.

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NEW HEARING IN CHRISTIE CRIMINAL CASE, ECHOES OF BARLYN SUIT

The criminal case against Governor Chris Christie over the Bridgegate lane-closing scandal met with a setback on January 12 when a state judge sent it back down to municipal court for a new hearing on probable cause.

Bergen County Assignment Judge Bonnie Mizdol vacated the probable cause determination made last October by Roy McGeady, the county’s Presiding Municipal Judge, on the ground that Christie was denied his constitutional right to counsel.

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