Case Numbers: 160 CD 2022; 142 CD 2022
Court: Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania
Clients: Angela Couloumbis, Sam Janesch
Petitions for Review Filed: February 2022
Background: In October 2021, Angela Couloumbis, an investigative reporter for Spotlight PA, and Sam Janesch, previously an investigative reporter for The Caucus, submitted public records requests to the state House and Senate under Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law. The requests specifically sought records related to outside legal work performed by law firms or attorneys hired or retained by the House or Senate or any House or Senate employee.
The next month, the House and Senate responded by partially granting and partially denying the journalists’ requests. Both legislative bodies stated that they would produce responsive records but would redact information that they said was subject to either the attorney-client or attorney work-product privilege, as well as personal financial information.
Couloumbis and Janesch appealed the partial denials to the House and Senate appeals officers, arguing that both bodies had interpreted the attorney-client and attorney work-product privileges too broadly and had redacted information that wasn’t subject to either privilege.
In January 2022, the journalists noted their appeal in an investigation they co-reported about the heavily redacted records they had received and what they described as “a stubborn pattern of secrecy surrounding the legislature’s agreements with private lawyers.”
The appeals officers later affirmed the decisions by the House and Senate to redact the records.
On behalf of Couloumbis and Janesch, Reporters Committee Local Legal Initiative Attorney Paula Knudsen Burke filed two petitions — one against the House, the other against the Senate — asking the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania to reverse the determinations of the appeals officers for both legislative bodies. (The two cases have not been consolidated, but they will be heard together.)
Related: In December 2022, Couloumbis, Janesch, Spotlight PA, and The Caucus asked the Commonwealth to review a similar public records dispute after the OOR denied their appeal seeking unredacted records related to outside legal work performed by law firms or attorneys for departments under the Pennsylvania governor’s jurisdiction. Burke is also representing the journalists and news outlets in that case.
Updates: On July 18, 2023, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania issued decisions in both the House and Senate cases. The appeals court agreed with the argument of Couloumbis and Janesch that the General Assembly cannot use the attorney-client and attorney work-product privileges to categorically redact the subject matters of its legal engagements in financial records, and instead held that the legislature must produce evidence supporting each instance it seeks to keep such information from public view on a case-by-case basis. While the court concluded that the House had met its evidentiary burden, it rejected the Senate’s broad justification for invoking the attorney-client and attorney work-product privileges, and remanded the case for in camera review.
2022-02-25: Petition for review (Senate)
2022-02-25: Exhibit A (Senate)
2022-02-18: Petition for review (House)
2022-02-18: Exhibit A (House)
2022-05-09: Order denying application for consolidation
2022-06-14: Principal brief of petitioners (House)
2022-06-14: Principal brief of petitioners (Senate)
2022-07-18: House response (House)
2022-07-18: Senate response (Senate)
2022-08-01: Reply brief of petitioners (House)
2022-08-01: Reply brief of petitioners (Senate)
2022-08-29: Order directing submission on briefs (House)
2022-08-29: Order directing submission on briefs (Senate)
2023-07-18: Commonwealth Court opinion (House)
2023-07-18: Commonwealth Court opinion (Senate)