Pa. appeals court panel: State judicial agencies not subject to OOR jurisdiction

By Jon Campisi | Dec 7, 2012

A three-judge Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court panel has affirmed a decision by the

A three-judge Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court panel has affirmed a decision by the

state’s Office of Open Records to deny a Philadelphia man’s request for an autopsy report.

In their majority opinion in the case of Edison Frazier v. Philadelphia County Office of the Prothonotary, the appellate judges wrote that the OOR was correct to deny Frazier’s appeal under the state’s Right-to-Know Law of the plaintiff’s request to the Philadelphia Prothonotary’s Office for the autopsy report.

The Prothonotary, which is essentially Pennsylvania’s version of a clerk of court for civil courts in the commonwealth, is a state judicial agency, and as such is not subject to the jurisdiction of the OOR, the Commonwealth Court panel wrote in its Dec. 4 decision.

In mid October of last year, Frazier had directed his request for the autopsy report and other related information to the Prothonotary under the state’s RTKL, although he claimed he never received a response from the Prothonotary, and thus assumed his request had been denied, the record shows.

Frazier subsequently appealed to the OOR to protect against the expiration of his appeal period.

The Philadelphia Prothonotary’s Office claimed that it didn’t receive Frazier’s request until Nov. 23, 2011, and that it denied the request on that very same day, according to the court opinion.

The judicial panel wrote that while the “certified record before us confirms neither version of the procedural history” and while that procedural history “may remain a mystery does not prevent us from resolving the instant appeal.”

The judges ultimately ruled that the state’s OOR does not have jurisdiction to hear appeals under the Right-to-Know Law taken from determinations of a judicial agency of the commonwealth.

“Under the Pennsylvania Rules of Judicial Administration, court prothonotaries are personnel of the unified judicial system,” the appellate panel wrote. “Accordingly, the OOR correctly determined that it did not have jurisdiction to hear Petitioner’s appeal, and dismissal was proper.”

The RTKL says that judicial agencies shall only provide financial records, the opinion states.

The judges went on to write that even if Frazier’s appeal had merit, his request for an autopsy report directed at the Prothonotary’s Office would be properly denied.

“An autopsy report is not a financial record and the Prothonotary is not required to provide it, even assuming, as Petitioner asserts, that it exists, is in the possession of the Prothonotary, and is not subject to an exemption,” the opinion states.

The opinion was written by Senior Judge James Gardner Colins.

Commonwealth Court President Judge Dan Pellegrini and Judge Robert Simpson participated in the decision.

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