N.J. Supreme Court Shields Rutgers Legal Clinics From Client-Records Requests

July 05, 2012

The New Jersey State Supreme Court has held that the state's open-records law does not require a Rutgers University legal clinic to relinquish client files, handing a major victory to higher-education associations, which warned that an inability to maintain attorney-client privilege would badly damage the nation's public law schools.

Overturning a state appeals-court decision against the public law clinic, the State Supreme Court unanimously ruled Thursday that the state's open-records act does not cover documents related to such clinics' efforts to represent clients.

In holding that the Rutgers Environmental Law Clinic is not legally obliged to hand over the records at issue in the case, the State Supreme Court held that the New Jersey's Legislature, in passing the state's open-records law in 2001, clearly did not intend to thwart public legal clinics' efforts to keep their client records confidential. The majority opinion said subjecting public legal clinics' client files to open-records requests would likely "harm the operation of public law clinics and, by extension, the legal profession and the public," and also would have the "absurd result" of leaving public law-school clinics subject to different disclosure requirements than the clinics associated with private law schools.

In a concurring opinion, a fifth justice, Barry T. Albin, took a different route to the same conclusion, arguing that law clinics' lawyers can be seen as covered by the open-records act's exemptions for pedagogical records, legal deliberations, and many of the records of lawyers for government agencies.

In a written statement issued Thursday by the Rutgers School of Law at Newark, John J. Farmer Jr., the school's dean, hailed the State Supreme Court's decision as recognizing "the need to protect the autonomy of the university and academic freedom."

"We are particularly gratified," Mr. Farmer said, "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 the open-records act were held to apply.

The lawsuit against the Rutgers environmental-law clinic had been brought by Sussex Commons Associates, a developer that had accused a citizens' group represented by the clinic in opposing the developer's plans for a new outlet mall of receiving financial support from the owner of two existing outlet malls in the region. Among the groups that had signed on to friend-of-the-court briefs backing the legal clinic were the Association of American Law Schools, the American Association of University Professors, the Clinical Legal Education Association, and the Society of American Law Teachers.