The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has overturned a lower court ruling that denied a
television station’s request from a county coroner for the manner in which a college student had died.
The high court’s Oct. 17 decision reverses a Commonwealth Court ruling that had upheld a decision by the state Office of Open Records to deny a request by Hearst Television, Inc., and its reporter, Daniel O’Donnell, seeking to have Cumberland County Coroner Michael Norris release the manner of death in the case of a 19-year-old Shippensburg University student who was found dead in his apartment back in 2009.
Following Norris’ investigation, the station and reporter filed a request under the state’s Right-to-Know Law seeking solely the manner of death, according to background information contained within the Supreme Court’s opinion.
Norris denied the request, saying that the cause and manner of death records would only become available to the public 30 days after the end of the year in accordance to Section 1251 of the Pennsylvania Coroner’s Act.
The opinion states that Norris viewed the Right-to-Know Law as providing “no greater right of access than that already provided in Section 1251 of the Coroner’s Act.”
The television station and O’Donnell appealed to the state’s Office of Open Records, which sided with Norris in determining that the cause and manner of death record only becomes a public record subject to disclosure under the Right-to-Know Law when it has already been made public pursuant to the Coroner’s Act.
The station filed a motion for reconsideration, which was initially granted by the OOR before issuing a final determination affirming the coroner’s rejection of the request.
It was during this time that the station raised what appeared to be a legal discrepancy, specifically, the requesters argued that under the Right-to-Know Law, all records in possession of a local agency are presumed to be public unless exempted by Section 708(b)(20).
However, according to the requesters, although this section exempts a coroner’s autopsy records, it also contains an exception to the exemption for the “reporting of the name of the deceased individual and the cause and manner of death,” the high court’s opinion states.
“Based on this proviso, Requester argued that the report of the cause and manner of death is a public record subject to immediate disclosure under the RTKL,” the opinion states.
The OOR ultimately determined that immediate disclosure of cause and manner of death records under the RTKL would conflict with the year-end disclosure requirement in Section 1251 of the Coroner’s Act.
The television station appealed the OOR’s decision to the Cumberland County Court of Common Pleas, which affirmed the OOR’s denial.
The Commonwealth Court affirmed the trial court’s decision on appeal.
The station ultimately appealed to the state Supreme Court.
In their opinion, the justices wrote that both the RTKL and Section 1236.1(c) of the Coroner’s Act provide immediate access to cause and manner of death records.
The high court determined that the General Assembly, in crafting the law, could have exempted all coroner’s records from disclosure under the RTKL, “but instead it added the proviso, indicating its intent not to limit the coroner’s reporting obligation with regard to the name of the deceased and the cause and manner of death. The Commonwealth Court did not give effect to the language of this section.”
The justices ruled that because the requested record is not exempt from disclosure under the RTKL, it must be provided to the requester.
Chief Justice Ronald Castille, along with Justices Thomas Saylor, Debra Todd and Seamus McCaffery joined in the majority decision, which was written by Justice Max Baer.
Justice J. Michael Eakin penned a four-page dissenting opinion in which he said he disagrees with the majority’s finding that there is no conflict between the sections of the Coroner’s Act and the state’s Right-to-Know Law.
Eakin said he would hold that the Coroner’s Act would give the coroner discretion concerning whether to release a written report regarding cause and manner of death prior to the statutorily mandated time period in Section 1251, and therefore conflicts with the RTKL.
Justice Joan Orie Melvin did not participate in the ruling. She is currently suspended from the bench awaiting trial on public corruption charges.