The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled earlier this week that a law governing coroner records does not prevent the state from disclosing information on how a person died when requested under the state's open records law.
The court in Hearst Television Inc. v. Norris ruled that because the requested record was not exempt from disclosure under the state's public records law, it was required to be released to the requester. It also ruled that the state's Coroner's Act does not give coroners discretion to decide whether or not to release records, as manner of death information must be released upon request.
In its decision, the court was asked to resolve a conflict between the Coroner’s Act and the Pennsylvania Right to Know Law. The state claimed that although the open records law generally mandates immediate release of public records, it does not apply if this provision conflicts with another federal or state law, such as the Coroner's Act.
Although the parties agreed that the manner of death information is a public record, they disagreed about when the law required such records to be released.
The government argued that the Coroner's Act, which requires disclosure of autopsy records by Jan. 30 of every year or sooner if the coroner chooses, gave the coroner the discretion to withhold records until after the New Year. Because the statute gave the coroner such discretion, the state's open records law did not apply.
The court ruled that "the RTKL and Section 1236.1(c) of the Coroner's Act each provide immediate access to cause and manner of death records. The RTKL provides the procedure for accessing those records that are available for immediate release for a fee pursuant to Section 1236.1(c)."
Jonathan Donnellan, the attorney for Hearst Television, said the ruling was important because, had the court ruled that the statute prevented release of the records under the state's open records law, it would have effectively gutted the public records law in other contexts where state agencies could also claim that there was some sort of minor overlap between the open records law and other statutory provisions.
“The court made clear that state agencies cannot claim conflict between the Right to Know Law and other laws that deal with the same subject matter as a means to defeat operation of the Right to Know Law,” he said.
In Pennsylvania there are many other laws that are separate from the Right to Know Act that either permit or prohibit access to public records. Therefore, a public record request made in Pennsylvania is subject to the provisions of the Right to Know Law and the statutes and regulations governing the agency that the request was made to.
Donnellan said that in the Hearst case, "the court made clear that they were going to strictly construe any statutes that were claimed to conflict with the Right to Know Law and not entertain claims that they were in conflict unless it was apparent on the face of the statute.”
The case began after Hearst Television Inc. and Daniel O’Donnell, a reporter at WGAL-TV, filed a Right to Know Law request with Michael Norris, the Coroner of Cumberland County, seeking autopsy records on the death of a 19-year old college student in Shippensburg, Pa.
The Coroner rejected the request, stating that he was not obligated to disclose the records until Jan. 30 of the following year. He also argued that another section of the Coroner’s Act, which permits the expedited release of manner of death information if requesters pay a fee, gave him the discretion to to decide whether or not to release the public records upon request.
The television stations appealed the denial to the state's Office of Open Records, which upheld the coroner’s decision. The requesters then filed suit in state court, but both the trial and appellate courts affirmed the finding by the Office of Open Records.
Related Reporters Committee resources:
· Pennsylvania – Open Government Guide: FOREWORD