In a decision that has national implications for clinical legal education, the Supreme Court of New Jersey has ruled that the client files and litigation materials of the clinical programs at Rutgers School of Law–Newark and Rutgers School of Law–Camden are not subject to the requirements of the State’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA).
“Today’s decision is a victory of substance over form,” said Rutgers–Newark Law School Dean John J. Farmer, Jr. “All of Rutgers Law is pleased with this result,” added Rutgers–Camden Law School Dean Rayman Solomon. “Together with the Legislature’s actions last week, this decision recognizes the need to protect the autonomy of the University and academic freedom.”
Dean Farmer continued: “We are pleased that the court recognized the history and special status of Rutgers University as the state university, as well as the nature and importance of clinical legal education. We are particularly gratified that the court recognized the threat to the integrity of our judicial system and the unique disadvantages our clinics and clients would have faced if OPRA were held to apply.”
Explained Rutgers–Newark Vice Dean Ronald Chen, “Rutgers’ clinics, unlike law firms in the State and the clinics at New Jersey’s private law school, would have been forced to tell their clients that private materials submitted to the clinics that don’t fit into the relatively narrow protections of attorney-client or related privileges would be subject to requests for disclosure as public records.
Professor Frank Askin, Director of the Rutgers Constitutional Litigation Clinic, added: “This means that anyone who wanted to harass the clinics and their clients could make demands that would divert the clinical faculty from their primary purposes of training students and providing legal services to underrepresented clients to responding to and litigating such requests in court.”
The appeal was from the dismissal of a lawsuit by a real estate developer seeking to compel the Newark Environmental Law Clinic to disclose case files under OPRA. The amicus briefs stressed the deleterious impact and chilling effects on public law schools’ clinical legal education programs from a potential ruling that clinical case files are records available to the public under open records laws.
Dean Farmer argued in the Supreme Court on behalf of the clinical programs at the Rutgers–Newark and Camden Law Schools. The friend of the Court brief had been prepared by the faculty and students of the Constitutional Limitation Clinic at the Newark law school.
In holding that clinic documents unrelated to state funding are exempt from OPRA, the Court emphasized that the purpose of the law was to provide transparency for governmental activities, and noted that: “Clinical legal programs do not perform any government functions. . . . Instead they teach law students how to practice law and represent clients. In addition, not even the University, let alone any government agency controls the manner in which clinical professors and their students practice law.”
Said Professor Jon Dubin, Associate Dean for Clinical Education at Rutgers–Newark Law School, “The Sussex Commons Assoc., LLC v. Rutgers, the State University decision is critically important not only to Rutgers but to public universities in other states with similar open public records laws that could be applied against their law clinics and their clients. It is for this reason that several national higher education organizations, including the Association of American Law Schools, the Clinical Legal Education Association, and the American Association of University Professors, filed amicus briefs with the Court in support of the Rutgers’ position.”