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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COURT NIXES RULE LIMITING UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS

A two-year-old rule that makes it harder to collect unemployment benefits in New Jersey has been struck down in court.

On May 1, a three-judge Appellate Division panel invalidated N.J.A.C. 12:17-2.1 as arbitrary and capricious, finding it illogical and confusing and calling it a “linguistic morass, one that cannot be readily or sensibly understood and applied.”

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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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NJ APPLESEED FIGHTS FOR OPEN SPACE ON HOBOKEN WATERFRONT

Context of this Case

A battle over whether a developer will be allowed to renege on a promise to provide open space on the Hoboken waterfront was argued before the Appellate Division on February 28.

New Jersey Appleseed’s Renee Steinhagen represents Fund for a Better Waterfront in several related appeals involving the Monarch Towers development.

The dispute concerns whether two 11 -story condominium towers can be built on a nearly two-acre waterfront parcel where the developer promised in 1997 to provide open space, including tennis courts and the final segment of the developer’s Hudson River Waterfront Walkway.

The construction faces fierce public opposition and would violate Hoboken ordinances that prohibit residential development on piers and platforms over the Hudson River. Those ordinances were adopted in December of 2013 in response to Superstorm Sandy, and in conformance with newly adopted federal and state standards to protect communities from flood hazards.

Read below about this case and NJ Appleseed’s work: Ron Hine reports for the Fund for a Better Waterfront.

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RULE PROTECTING RETIREMENT INVESTMENTS SURVIVES COURT CHALLENGES.

UPDATE: Since this article was posted, District Judge Crabtree in the Kansas case followed the lead of Judge Lynn on February 17, granting summary judgment for the Department of Labor and denying a cross motion by  plaintiff Market Synergy Group, which sought to block the rule.

Just days after Donald Trump took steps to derail a rule meant to protect retirement investments, a federal court decision has bolstered hopes for its survival.

The regulation, known as the fiduciary rule, was adopted by the Department of Labor (DOL) last April and took effect in June 2016. Compliance was to start on April 10 of this year, with some aspects of the rule not set to kick in until 2018.

The rule requires financial advisers to act in the best interest of the clients who pay them for their professional advice and prohibits them from recommending or selling inferior or more costly investments that will garner them higher commissions.

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ATTEMPT TO OVERRIDE EQUAL PAY LAW VETO THWARTED FOR NOW

An attempt to pass a law that would require equal pay for women in New Jersey was thwarted on January 23 when it became apparent that sponsors did not have the votes to override Governor Chris Christie’s veto of the same bill last May.

The effort came three days after the Trump inauguration, two days after millions of women marched against him and the same day that Trump re-instated the Reagan-era global gag rule – the prohibition on U.S. funding for international organizations that provide information about abortion, even if none of the American dollars go to pay for abortions.

The New Jersey legislation, S-992, would be a state version of the federal Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first legislation signed into law by President Barack Obama, on January 29, 2009, about a week after he took office.

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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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