Our opinion: Common sense prevails

Sometimes common sense prevails.

Not always, mind you, but occasionally.

This is one of those times.

This week Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court struck a blow for open government with a ruling that the state Office of Open Records has the authority to order a private review of records to decide disputes about access to government documents and information.

Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law took effect in 2009, and ever since local and state government entities have been looking for loopholes and chinks in its wording to avoid compliance.

In the case before the court, a township asserted attorney-client privilege when it refused to disclose information related to payments to an attorney. It also said that restriction extended to the Office of Open Records, which is the state’s arbiter of open records disputes.

Writing the unanimous decision of the seven-member court, Judge Patricia McCullough asserted that in some circumstances a “camera view” of the records in question “may be the only way that an appeals officer can assess, in a meaningful fashion, whether an agency has met its burden of proving the a document is privileged by a preponderance of the evidence.”

She noted that while that concept may not be explicitly written in the law, it is “necessarily implied” by the law. She also noted that the keystone of the Right to Know Law places the burden on government officials to prove whether records they are asked to release are exempt from public view. The whole point of the Right to Know Law is to give the public access to records documenting the workings of government, she noted.

The Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, which joined in the suit, said the decision will help people avoid going to court to get access to government records.

It is only common sense that a court or an agency charged with making a decision must be able to see pertinent evidence in order to make a decision, and we applaud the Commonwealth Court for its recognition of that fact.