The Latest

The PA Supreme Court Tackles Right-To-Know Law

By Matthew Haverstick

The Supreme Court dealt a blow to state agencies’ ability to invoke the Right-To-Know Law, but may have further-reaching consequences for government agencies that have separate investigative and adjudicative branches. In PUC v. The Morning Call, Appeal of: S. Kraus, 53 MAP 2015 (http://www.pacourts.us/assets/opinions/Supreme/out/J-3B-2016mo%20-%201026738467163636.pdf?cb=1), the Court tackled the PUC’s denial of a media Right-To-Know request for an anonymous tip letter that spurred a Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission investigation of a electric utility. Like many state agencies, the PUC has an investigative arm; sanctions against utility providers are then voted on by the Commissioners themselves, who perform their adjudicative function separately from the investigators. In this case, the PUC commissioners voted on a sanction based on a presentation by the investigators, but were not shown the tip letter.

Media outlets submitted Right-To-Know requests for all documents upon which the Commission relied in sanctioning the utility, including the tip letter. PUC objected as to the tip letter, maintaining that for purposes of the request the “Commission” meant the Commissioners themselves, as they decided on the sanction and had not seen the letter. The Office of Open Records disagreed with PUC, but Commonwealth Court reversed. In its 4-2 opinion reversing Commonwealth Court, the Court held that the relevant statutory language defining the “Commission” included the entire PUC, and not just the adjudicative arm of the agency. Since many state agencies deliberately quarantine their investigative and adjudicative functions – to protect the Due Process rights of sanctioned parties by ensuring the “prosecutor” and “judge” are not the same person – this case is bound to be cited again in future Right-To-Know fights at PUC and elsewhere in the Commonwealth.