Law Schools

Law School Clinic's Case Records Not Subject to Open Records Law, NJ Supreme Court Rules

An environmental litigation clinic at Rutgers Law School in Newark does not have to turn over case records under New Jersey’s public records law, the state supreme court has ruled in a unanimous opinion.

The decision (PDF) reverses an appeals court ruling that the records had to be disclosed, according to the Asbury Park Press blog Capitol Quickies and the New Jersey Star Ledger.

A developer planning an outlet mall had sought the clinic’s records as part of its dispute with a competitor it accused of interfering in its attempts to acquire tenants. The developer wanted to learn if lawyers for the competitor were talking to a legal clinic client—a citizens group opposed to the mall.

The state supreme court said the developer was not entitled to the records. “We find no evidence that the legislature intended to apply [the Open Public Records Act] to teaching clinics that represent private clients, or that it meant to cause harm to clinical programs at public law schools when it enacted OPRA,” the state supreme court court said. “We also conclude that the common law right of access does not extend to case-related records of law school clinics.”

The court said the Open Public Records Act gives citizens access to documents that record the workings of government. The goal is to serve as a check on government action. Clinical legal programs, on the other hand, don’t perform any government functions, the court said. Instead, their purpose is to teach law students how to practice law and represent clients.

“Unlike a request for documents about the funding of a clinic or its professors’ salaries, which are discoverable under OPRA, case-related records would not shed light on the operation of government or expose misconduct or wasteful government spending,” the court said. “The possibility of disclosure, however, would have real consequences for clinical education.”

Prior coverage: “Many Law School Clinics See ‘Pushback’ Over Their Legal Work”

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