Commonwealth Court Attempts to Clarify Proper Procedures to Obtain Judicial Records Other Than Financial Records

In spite of a well-established constitutional right to access judicial records, the procedures to obtain them remain somewhat of a mystery. In its latest opinion, Faulk v. Philadelphia Clerk of Courts, — A.3d —-, 1904 C.D. 2014 (Pa.Cmwlth. 5/28/15), the Commonwealth Court provided much needed clarification regarding the proper procedures to access judicial records. People may use the streamlined access and appeal procedures set forth in the Right-to-Know Law (RTKL) to obtain financial records of the judiciary. Other non-financial public judicial records (e.g. civil and criminal filings) are accessible “outside” of the RTKL.

A state-prison inmate submitted a request to the Philadelphia Clerk of Courts for his sentencing orders. He filed an appeal with the Office of Open Records (OOR) because the Clerk did not respond within five business days. The OOR dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction over records of a judicial agency. The Commonwealth Court affirmed.   Although the Commonwealth Court determined that the OOR lacked jurisdiction, it continued to discuss the RTKL as it pertains to judicial agencies because the court receives a number of appeals and petitions from inmates related to records of “judicial agencies.”

Section 304 of the RTKL requires judicial agencies (the courts and other entities and offices of the unified judicial system) to disclose financial records. If a judicial agency fails to respond to a request for financial records within five business days, the requester must file an initial appeal to the judicial agency’s RTK appeals officer—not to the OOR or to the Commonwealth Court—within 15 business days of the date the request is deemed denied. If the appeals officer does not respond within 30 calendar days, the requester may then appeal to the Commonwealth Court.[1]

The RTKL’s access and appeal procedures for financial records of judicial agencies are not available to an inmate who requests a sentencing order because a sentencing order is not a financial record.   However, sentencing orders are unquestionably public records.   The Commonwealth Court explained “[t]hat sentencing orders do not qualify as ‘public records’ under the RTKL does diminish their public nature.” Court filings and other materials used by a court to render a decision are accessible as public judicial records. Thus, in order to access non-financial public judicial records, like sentencing orders, the court stated a requester must proceed “outside” of the RTKL.

The Commonwealth Court does not explain what “outside” the RKTL means, but the phrase appears to sanction mandamus actions where a judicial agency refuses to disclose non-financial public judicial records. There is no statewide procedure to obtain public judicial records besides Rule 509 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Judicial Administration, which, like the RTKL, is limited to financial records. There are pending policies being promulgated by the Supreme Court.   A requester should check the local rules in each county to determine if there is an available administrative remedy. In the absence of any other remedy, a requester would have to file an action in mandamus against the records manager of a judicial district, or the head of the entity or office in question, if the judicial agency refuses to disclose a non-financial public judicial record.

Disclaimer:  This blog is maintained by the members of Nauman Smith’s Media and Right-to-Know Law practice group.  The members of this practice group represent both: 1) media entities, individuals and corporations seeking access to public records, and 2) local municipalities seeking to comply with the law.  THIS BLOG IS NOT MEANT TO BE USED AS LEGAL ADVICE.  The purpose of this blog is to provide educational material for individuals interested in Pennsylvania’s open records law, commonly referred to as the “Right-to-Know Law” or “RTKL”.  The opinions expressed by the individual members of the practice group are solely their own, and do not reflect the opinions of Nauman, Smith, Shissler & Hall, LLP, or the practice group as a whole.

[1] Note, however, the Commonwealth Court’s well-reasoned conclusion that an initial appeal has to be filed with the judicial agency’s RTK appeals officer conflicts with a rule promulgated by the Supreme Court. Under Rule 509 of the Rules of Judicial Administration, a judicial agency has 10 business days to respond to a request, and a requester has 15 business days to file an appeal to the president judge of the court of common pleas or his or her designee. Such appeal is discretionary and does not have to be exhausted before filing an appeal with the Commonwealth Court.     Unless and until the Supreme Court declares the response period and appellate procedure under the RTKL to be an unconstitutional infringement on the judiciary’s power to establish their own record disclosure rules, a requester would be wise to proceed under the RTKL whenever there is a conflict with Rule 509.

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