- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 24, 2014

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - A Pennsylvania state court ruled unanimously Tuesday that the Office of Open Records has the authority to order a private review of records to decide disputes about access to government documents and information.

A Commonwealth Court panel gave the agency access to legal bills from Center Township in Butler County so it can determine whether it would violate attorney-client privilege to make them public.

The open records office has been holding the “in camera” reviews, but the new decision said it can take that step when someone requests it without a court giving permission ahead of time.

“In some instances, in camera review may be the only way that an appeals officer can assess, in a meaningful fashion, whether an agency has met its burden of proving that a document is privileged by a preponderance of the evidence,” wrote Judge Patricia McCullough, joined by all six others.

Center Township’s attorney, Mike Gallagher, said it was too early to know if the township will appeal.

“In my role as an advocate for local governments, I don’t think freedom is served by letting bureaucrats determine what constitutes attorney-client privilege,” Gallagher said.

An attorney with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association said the decision will help people avoid going to court to get access to government records.

“The alternative would be any time an agency claimed the attorney-client privilege - or any other privilege that would necessitate looking at the actual records - they would have to go to court in order to be able to do it,” said the media group’s attorney, Melissa Melewsky.




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