The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Monday to rule the New Jersey Supreme Court in a case that will make it easier for people to control the appropriateness of transactions.

“Access to public documents promotes transparency, accountability and sincerity,” Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote in unanimous decision of the court on the case involving a former Cumberland County prison officer accused of forcing a woman to “regularly engage in sexual intercourse without consent.”

Officer Tyrone Ellis was allowed to resign “in good standing” with a reduced pension after he agreed to cooperate with the district investigation of four other officers suspected of misconduct. Libertarians for a transparent government demanded a copy of the settlement agreement between Ellis and Cumberland County. The custodian declined the request, saying it was a personnel case that did not fall under the State’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA). The Supreme Court judge agreed and ordered an edited version of the agreement, but the Appeals Division overturned it.

The Supreme Court accepted the appeal and agreed to hear arguments from a member of the court from ACLU-NJ and a number of news organizations. The court agreed with the libertarian group and its supporters in the case. State law, which makes most personnel and pension documents private, requires public access to basic information: name, rank, position, salary, salary, length of service, date of termination and reason for it, and the amount and type of pension received, the court ruled. .

“No reasonable confidentiality requirement can justify refusing to disclose Ellis’s settlement agreement.”

“OPRA protects a person’s personal information if its disclosure violates a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy,” the court wrote. But because the law stipulates that certain information may be published, “no reasonable request for confidentiality can justify refusing to disclose the Ellis Agreement.”

CJ Griffin, a lawyer specializing in open public affairs who represented libertarians for a transparent government, called the decision “significant” for overturning the appellate ruling, which for a time highlighted the agreements from the public eye. Prior to this decision, many agencies have published agreements with the editors.

“Increased responsibility and supervision”

“The public should have the right to review settlement agreements entered into by government agencies so we can review the terms and determine if they are reasonable,” Griffin said. “The decision of the Appellate Division in this case made the separation agreements confidential, forbidding the public from performing any oversight role to ensure that employees were not given nice deals on the way out or that misconduct was not profitable … The Appeals Division’s decision to close this access. Now the Supreme Court has restored it, and it will lead to more responsibility and control. “

The Committee of Reporters for Freedom of the Press, a national nonprofit that supports journalists on First Amendment and Freedom of Information issues, has widely argued that OPRA and other public record laws promote the public interest by allowing journalists to report on government and public behavior. workers. Libertarians for a transparent government more specifically argued that the court’s decision would have far-reaching implications for police transparency and sexual violence in prisons.

Both of these arguments are recognized in the decision. It also states that people requesting a settlement agreement are entitled to a copy, after the information has been edited for deletion, by law, it is necessary to maintain confidentiality, not just the custodian’s answers to human questions. In this case, Cumberland County refused to publish the agreement, but told the libertarian group that Ellis was fired for his misconduct as a correctional officer, which was not true – he was allowed to retire with a good reputation and keep most of his pension.

“Without access to valid documents in such cases, the public may remain incomplete or incorrect information.”

“We recognize that some requests may be satisfied by receiving a written summary of the information in response to an OPRA request. But OPRA gives them the right in many situations to demand valid government documents, which they can then check, ”the decision reads. “Without access to real documents in such cases, the public may remain incomplete or incorrect information.”

Griffin said the ability to obtain a copy of the document is crucial to maintaining the integrity of government officials and agencies.

“This decision forbids agencies from lying,” she said. “They can’t tell us they fired someone if the agreement shows that they really allow a person to retire with a pension.”

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