NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) is asking the Christie administration (183k PDF) to take action to require public employees to use their government-issued email accounts to conduct public business and to maintain any emails or texts sent from personal accounts as government records in the event an employee leaves their position.
Additionally, the ACLU-NJ is calling for the New Jersey Legislature and Governor Chris Christie’s administration to work with New York officials to enact legislation subjecting the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) to the same open records and open meetings requirements by which all public governing bodies in New Jersey are bound.
The requests were made in a letter sent to the administration today in the wake of records released about the closure of several lanes connecting Fort Lee to the George Washington Bridge in September.
“We need to shine a strong light on public officials to ensure an open, transparent government that the public can trust,” said Ed Barocas, ACLU-NJ legal director. “An open, transparent government is a cornerstone of democracy. When public officials conduct business on private email accounts or via text messages, it lessens accountability and causes likely breaches of laws and regulations.”
The ACLU-NJ is calling on the state Attorney General to issue a formal opinion, as well as regulations, requiring that government employees use their government email addresses for all public business whenever possible, and clarifying that records custodians must have access to any private emails or text messages relating to public business. If any correspondence takes place on private accounts, it must be printed out or turned over to the records custodian immediately and retained as a government record. The ACLU-NJ is also raising concerns about access to personal emails and text messages once an employee leaves public office, such as the case with Gov. Chris Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly. Documents released by the legislature indicate that Kelly and former Port Authority official David Wildstein traded correspondence about the lane closures from their personal email accounts. Both Kelly and Wildstein are no longer public employees.
“No matter where one stands on the George Washington Bridge lane closure controversy, we should all agree that we cannot allow a culture of secrecy to fester in our government,” said Udi Ofer, executive director of the ACLU-NJ. “It is time to make the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey more transparent and accountable to the public and to prohibit the use of private emails and texts when conducting government business.”
The ACLU-NJ addressed similar concerns about private emails when, in 2012, it discovered that then-Mayor Cory Booker, Commissioner of the Department of Education Christopher Cerf and others corresponded about public business using private accounts. The ACLU-NJ successfully sued to obtain emails that then-Mayor Booker sent from his private email account.
The ACLU-NJ also calls upon the legislature and Christie administration to work with other states to bring any bi-state agency in line with open records and meetings regulations that apply to New Jersey’s municipalities and school boards. This would give the public equal access to documents they can obtain from other boards and the opportunity to seek a court review of a rejection of a document request.
“New Jersey should work with its other relevant sister states to ensure that all bi-state agencies are subject to the same robust transparency requirements,” the ACLU-NJ letter states. “Failure to do so will almost guarantee that the PANYNJ and similar multistate agencies will be permitted to operate in a culture of secrecy that is harmful to democratic governance.”
NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ), the national ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit today to stop the state of New Jersey from awarding more than $11 million in taxpayer funds to two higher education institutions dedicated solely to religious training and instruction.
The groups also filed a petition asking the court to immediately prevent the state from doling out grants to those two institutions, Beth Medrash Govoha and Princeton Theological Seminary.
“We support freedom of religion; however the government has no business funding religious ministries,” said Ed Barocas, legal director of the ACLU of New Jersey. “Taxpayers should not foot the bill to train clergy or provide religious instruction, but the state is attempting to do exactly that.”
On April 29, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s administration released a list of 176 college construction projects it intends to aid with money from a voter-approved bond. The New Jersey Constitution forbids any such taxpayer funds from supporting ministries or places of worship.
Yet Beth Medrash Govoha, an orthodox Jewish rabbinical school in Lakewood, is slated to receive $10.6 million from the state to pay for the construction of a new library and academic center. All courses of study at Beth Medrash Govoha are classified as “Theology/Theological Studies” or “Talmudic Studies.” The school prepares students to become rabbis and religious educators.
Similarly, Princeton Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian Christian seminary located in Princeton, is slated to receive $645,323 from the state. All courses of study at the seminary either prepare students to serve as ministers or priests in Christian religious traditions or to serve as religious educators. The New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education’s website identifies the school as a “theological institution.”
“Taxpayers should not be forced to pay for the training of clergy,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “These grants plainly violate the separation of church and state enshrined in the New Jersey Constitution.”
Giving public money to Beth Medrash Govoha also violates the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. The school is identified in federal records as a single-sex school with only male students. According to state records, its entire student body of 6,538 students was all-male in 2012, and all 79 members of its faculty were male during 2011.
“The state of New Jersey has an important role to play in providing financial support for institutions of higher learning in our state, but public money should not be used to fund schools that are not open and welcoming to all students in New Jersey ,” said Udi Ofer, executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey. “State funding of higher education should not be done at the expense of the separation of church and state.”
The lawsuit was filed in Superior Court in Trenton. The plaintiffs in the case are the ACLU-NJ, the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of New Jersey (UULMNJ) and Gloria Schor Andersen, a Voorhees Township resident who has been a public-school and a Hebrew School teacher/tutor. Andersen is also Speaker-at-Large for the Delaware Valley Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
“As a member of the clergy, I recognize the important responsibility that faith groups have in training their next generation of leaders,” said the Rev. Craig Hirshberg, executive director of UULMNJ. “However, their religious studies should not be funded by taxpayers. When the government financially supports religious groups, it provides privileges to particular religions over others and diverts designated public funds away from programs that should benefit all citizens.”
The Legislature has until June 28 to reject the grants. Some lawmakers have raised similar concerns about funding religious ministries and pressed the state for more information about its selection process.
In addition to the lawsuit, the ACLU-NJ has filed several open records requests with the state to learn more about the nature of the schools receiving funding and how the grants were awarded. The state failed to release scoring sheets and other records documenting how it determined who should receive the grants.
“These grants fly in the face of important state safeguards that protect the religious liberty of all New Jersey taxpayers,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.
Along with Barocas, Luchenitser, and Mach, the attorneys representing the plaintiffs include Frank Corrado of Barry, Corrado & Grassi, P.C.; Lenora Lapidus and Mie Lewis of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project; and Ayesha Khan, legal director of Americans United.
NEWARK – The state of New Jersey has denied a request (131k PDF) by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) to release the applications of all higher education institutions that applied for public funding for construction projects, stating that if the information were made public, it would “give an advantage to competitors or bidders.” The ACLU-NJ filed the requests to learn more about the nature of the schools receiving funding, and in particular to determine whether Gov. Chris Christie’s administration violated the divide between church and state.
“New Jersey has an important interest in supporting higher education in the state, but it cannot be done at the expense of the separation of church and state,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “Public money should not be used to fund religious schools or institutions that may discriminate. Yet both appear to be happening under Gov. Christie’s proposal.”
“The state’s rationale for refusing to release the applications we requested makes no sense. The application process is already closed, so there would be no advantage or disadvantage in releasing these records,” Ofer added.
The state also failed to release scoring sheets and other records documenting how New Jersey Higher Education determined whether schools were eligible for funds and how much they should receive.
In May, the state released a list of 176 college building projects it selected to receive state grants from a voter-approved bond. The ACLU-NJ and state lawmakers have pressed New Jersey Higher Education to shed light on the criteria it used to select projects to fund. The ACLU-NJ is concerned that at least two of the institutions on the list, Beth Medrash Govoha and Princeton Theological Seminary, exist with the primary mission of training sectarian religious leaders and may be discriminatory in their polices or practices.
Beth Medrash Govoha, an Orthodox yeshiva in Lakewood, received $10.6 million. According to New Jersey Higher Education, Beth Medrash Govoha is a rabbinical school. Princeton Theological Seminary, which trains male and female Christian ministers, received $645,313.
The state legislature can reject the list within 60 days of its release.
On May 8, the ACLU-NJ filed a request under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) for the applications of all private schools that received funding. It filed a separate request for the guidelines and parameters the state used in determining the grant amounts.
The state released to the ACLU-NJ only broad guidelines, which allow for great discretion in selecting how much each project receives.
On May 10, the ACLU-NJ filed a third OPRA request seeking all applications, scoring sheets and all correspondence between New Jersey Higher Education and representatives from each applicant. The state asked to extend the deadline for that request to June 24. The ACLU-NJ agreed to give the state more time to locate emails and other correspondence, but asked the state to release the scoring sheets by May 31. The state failed to meet that deadline.
“It’s extremely troubling that Gov. Christie’s administration expects the legislature to rubber stamp this list without answering any questions about how these schools were selected,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Edward Barocas. “The legislature should reject the funding until these serious public concerns are addressed.”
NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) filed a public records request today seeking the parameters and guidelines Gov. Chris Christie’s administration used in determining which school construction projects to fund using taxpayer dollars.
The Christie administration this week released a list of private and public universities it intends to help using money from a voter-approved bond. The list included private religious schools, such as Beth Medrash Govoha, an all-male, orthodox Jewish rabbinical school in Lakewood and Princeton Theological Seminary, which trains male and female Christian ministers.
“State funding of some of these projects raises constitutional concerns that must be addressed,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “The legislature should reject this funding proposal until Gov. Christie sheds more light on the criteria the state used in selecting which schools and projects to fund, and assures the public that government funding is not used to support programs that discriminate.”
Beth Medrash Govoha received $10.6 million to build a new library and academic center and Princeton Theological Seminary received $645,313 to improve the technology infrastructure of its library and other technological projects.
In addition to asking the state to provide the guidelines it used in making its funding decision, the ACLU-NJ is also seeking any applications the private institutions submitted to the state requesting the money.
NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) and the Rutgers Constitutional Litigation Clinic submitted a letter to the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA) yesterday, asking it to be more transparent and to include opportunities for public input in its plans to disburse federal funds for Hurricane Sandy relief.
They also called for a thorough assessment of the special needs of low and moderate income households and communities of color created by Sandy, as well as the effect of planning decisions on those communities, as required by the regulations governing disbursement of federal disaster relief funds.
The DCA released a draft of its plan to the public on March 13, but only gave the public seven days to review or submit comments on the plan. But the state did not schedule any public hearings on the plan, nor does it have a strategy to include public input in the future.
“This plan will have a long-lasting impact on New Jersey residents across the state, and across economic, racial and ethnic lines,” said Udi Ofer, executive director of the ACLU-NJ. “The public has a vested interest in reviewing the plan thoroughly and providing its input on decisions that will affect them. Any plan must also consider the disproportionate hardship imposed upon economically disadvantaged communities. We all share collective responsibility for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of communities affected by natural disasters.”
Ronald K. Chen of the Rutgers Constitutional Litigation Clinic, said he recognizes that time is critical in making sure that relief is distributed to help those in need.
“On balance, asking for additional time for the public to review the plan would not seriously impair the interest to help New Jersey residents and provide relief,” said Chen. “This is an enormous undertaking and we all share the goal of developing a plan that is sustainable and boosts the long-term viability of the state.
The ACLU-NJ and Fair Share Housing Center (FSHC), which also submitted a letter to the state, are also concerned that a disproportionate amount of the federal funds will go to homeowners, rather than renters. This includes relief funds to relocate renters and for any property they lost during the storm.
NEWARK – In response to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU-NJ, the City of Newark has released emails exchanged between public officials about a $100 million donation to Newark Public Schools. The city released the emails after a judge ordered the city to release the correspondence.
"It is unfortunate that it took a lawsuit and ruling from the judge to force the City of Newark to turn over public documents," said Ed Barocas, legal director for the ACLU-NJ. "We and our clients will now review the documents. And if there are no bombshells in these emails, the public has a right to ask why the city was so adamant in its refusal to release them, costing the city significant legal fees."
The case is captioned Secondary Parent Council v. Newark
NEWARK – A Superior Court judge has ordered the City of Newark to release emails that were exchanged about the $100 million pledge that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made to Newark schools in September 2010.
The ruling was issued in response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) on behalf of the Secondary Parent Council (SPC), a group of Newark parents and grandparents seeking more transparency about the donation.
"The City of Newark posed as many legal objections as it could to releasing these emails, which were exchanged by public officials," said Frank Corrado, an attorney with Barry, Corrado & Grassi, who represents SPC on the ACLU-NJ's behalf. "The judge's ruling repudiated all of their arguments."
The city originally stated it did not have any documents about the donation. It later admitted in a January court hearing that emails existed, but argued they did not have to release them because they were shielded by mayoral executive privilege, contain personal information and are deliberative in nature. The city also argued Newark Mayor Cory Booker was not acting in his official capacity as mayor when he accepted Zuckerberg's pledge on the Oprah Winfrey show.
Judge Rachel N. Davidson rejected all those arguments, noting for instance that a press release on the City of Newark's own website touts Booker's involvement in the donation as mayor and that all of the emails in dispute are maintained by Booker's executive assistant in Newark City Hall. The judge also noted that Booker's role as mayor is repeated in statements about the donation that are mentioned on his campaign website, as well as in some of the emails that are being sought.
"The fact that some of the emails were sent to the mayor using a personal, or perhaps, a campaign-related email address does not exempt them from being considered a public record," the judge stated in her ruling.
The judge also said it is not clear if executive privilege applies to mayors at all, but assuming that it does, "it does not apply here."
"The executive privilege would apply, for example, to deliberations within Newark about whether to accept the $100 million donation," Davidson said. "Such deliberations are completely absent from the emails."
Davidson also held that, with the exception of email addresses and a portion of one email, the contents of the emails do not contain any personal information that should be safeguarded from the public, nor were they deliberative in nature.
The judge did not set a deadline for the release of the 36 emails that were exchanged between public officials including Booker, Superintendent of Newark Public Schools Cami Anderson, Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education Christopher Cerf and other individuals or officials.
The emails that Newark identified in response to SPC's request were sent between Sept. 13, 2010 through June 27, 2011.
SPC is a group of parents and grandparents with children in Newark public schools. The organization filed its open records request after Zuckerberg's pledge because it wanted more insight on how the gift would affect public education.
The case is captioned Secondary Parent Council v. Newark.
NEWARK – The New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC) has agreed to drop its TRU-ID licensing program, bringing an end to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ). The program has been suspended since May when the ACLU-NJ convinced a judge to bring the program to a halt because it ran afoul of legal requirements for the state to inform members of the public of changes in policy that could affect them.
“I am thrilled to see implementation of the REAL ID Act toppled in New Jersey,” said Deborah Jacobs, the former ACLU-NJ executive director who served as an individual plaintiff in the case. “I hope the state’s attempts to implement the REAL ID Act are now over, and we can join the majority of the states in our nation that have rejected the federal law as overly invasive and expensive.”
The state has agreed to maintain its existing 6-Point license system, which has been in place since 2003. If the MVC decides to pursue TRU-ID again, it has agreed to go through the formal regulatory process and elicit public input.
“New Jersey law demands a transparent, democratic process that would give the public a chance to weigh in on a program such as TRU-ID that would adversely affect our privacy,” said Ed Barocas, acting executive director of the ACLU-NJ. “It’s disturbing to think how close New Jersey got to having such an intrusive ID system pushed onto us by mere fiat rather than through proper legal channels.”
The state has also agreed to pay the ACLU-NJ’s attorney fees and the ACLU-NJ reserves the right to challenge any regulations the state adopts in the future.
The ACLU-NJ alleged the MVC violated New Jersey’s Administrative Procedure Act, which dictates any new rule or regulation requires, at minimum, public notice and the chance for citizen review. The state released minimal information about TRU-ID before the planned implementation and sought no input from the public, legislators or stakeholders.
State officials said TRU-ID was conceived in order to comply with the federal Real ID Act, a 2005 policy that sought to create a national identification card. But at least 25 states have opted out of Real ID, with many of them passing legislation making it illegal for their state governments to participate.
The New Jersey program would have required citizens to turn over sensitive personal documents to the government, such as birth certificates and Social Security cards without any assurances from the government that the documents would be safely housed from identity thieves or other threats. Now, the state will continue to accept a range of documents as proof of identity, rather than limiting the list to only the most sensitive, as TRU-ID would have done.
In addition to privacy concerns, the ACLU-NJ feared the potential impact of TRU-ID on some of New Jersey’s most vulnerable communities with regard to civil rights and personal safety. The MVC’s attempt to require all documents, including birth certificates, be in English imposed a burden on anyone born in a non-English speaking country. It was also initially uncertain whether the state would make any exceptions for victims of domestic violence, who are currently allowed to use an alternate address for all state and local government purposes, rather than their actual home addresses to protect their safety.
NEWARK — The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) filed a lawsuit against the State of New Jersey today for unlawfully refusing to release its policy on wearing buttons, pins or stickers in the Statehouse. The ACLU-NJ requested the policy under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) after receiving a complaint from Statehouse visitors who were told they would have to remove politically expressive buttons to enter.
“It is completely absurd that the State Police may have a policy restricting what the public can or cannot do, but then refuses to let the public know what the policy actually says,” stated ACLU-NJ acting executive director Ed Barocas.
After receiving the complaints, an attorney for the ACLU-NJ contacted the State Police Superintendent, requesting that he provide the current policy on wearing buttons or stickers in the Statehouse. On August 13, the State Police’s Records Custodian rejected the ACLU-NJ’s request, stating the policy falls under “standard operating procedures” and is therefore exempt from OPRA under new regulations adopted by the Attorney General.
“The Statehouse belongs to the public, and the public has a right to know if the government has placed any unconstitutional restrictions on their free speech,” said Janie Byalik of Pashman Stein, P.C., which represents the ACLU-NJ in the matter. “The state’s refusal to release its free speech policy is an affront to transparency and to democracy.”
The Attorney General’s office has attempted to justify withholding “standard operating procedure” records from the public because they “do not generally impact the public’s interactions with agencies in the Department of Law and Public Safety” and “may also provide insight into law enforcement techniques, legal strategy and other confidential matters that may put lives at risk.”
The ACLU-NJ has opposed these regulations, adopted in December 2011, saying they are overly broad and allow the state to withhold broad categories of public documents — even general policies such as the ones at issue here — from the public unlawfully.
“It is difficult to fathom how releasing the state’s policies on buttons and pins would put the public’s lives at risk,” said Byalik. “And if any restrictions exist, they directly affect how the public is being asked to interact with State Police and with our legislators. This is another example of how the state is using these regulations to keep the public in the dark about basic government policies that they have a right to know about.”
The ACLU-NJ is challenging the Attorney General’s regulations directly in a separate lawsuit filed in the state appellate division on June 29, asking the court to invalidate several provisions of the regulations that allow the state to exempt documents such as: standard operating procedure and training manuals, employment policies, and State Trooper overtime.
Last week, the ACLU-NJ filed yet another separate lawsuit after the State Police unlawfully denied a request for public records detailing its promotion policies. Calling the request too broad, the state said it considered those records exempt from OPRA because they are standard operating procedures and relate to employment.
NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) has filed a lawsuit against the New Jersey State Police for unlawfully denying a request for public records detailing its promotion policies. This is the second time this summer that the ACLU-NJ has legally challenged the State for lack of transparency regarding public records. The ACLU-NJ filed the lawsuit on behalf of Richard Rivera, who requested the documents on behalf of the Civil Rights Protection Project of the Latino Leadership Alliance.
“The State Police is operating in virtual secrecy with no accountability to the public it serves,” said Rivera. “The public has an interest and a right to know what types of policies determine why some officers get promoted, including whether those policies favor one racial or ethnic group over another.”
On July 25, Rivera filed a request under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) for all written policies, procedures, or orders that reflect the criteria, processes and methods of promotion in the State Police.
The state rejected his request on Aug. 2, stating it was too broad and that newly adopted regulations allow the state to withhold broad categories of public documents – even general policies – from the public.
“This case is a prime example of how the Attorney General’s recently adopted regulations violate OPRA, by exempting more information from public view than the law allows,” said attorney Janie Byalik of Pashman Stein, P.C., which represents Rivera as a cooperating firm for the ACLU-NJ. “The State failed to provide any reason why it is in the public’s interest to keep this document confidential.”
Open government advocates, such as the ACLU-NJ, testified against the regulations for compromising transparency prior to the regulations’ passage in December 2011, arguing that many of the documents the State considers exempt are innocuous. The state Attorney General assured the ACLU-NJ that the regulations were not intended to make general policies and procedures – such as the ones Rivera requested – confidential.
“We raised these red flags with the state Attorney General, who assured us that the regulations would not be used to keep innocuous records, such as general personnel policies, from the public view,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. “Instead, the State did exactly what we feared in its response to Rivera’s request for records.”
In July, the ACLU-NJ challenged the regulations directly in the state appellate division, asking it to invalidate several provisions of the regulations that allow the State to exempt documents such as: standard operating procedure and training manuals, employment policies, duty assignments and overtime. Byalik and Michael Stein of Pashman Stein, a law firm based in Hackensack, NJ, represent the ACLU-NJ in that case as well.
The case is captioned Richard Rivera v. Ismael E. Vargas and the New Jersey State Police.
Listen to audio comments from attorney Janie Byalik of the law firm Pashman Stein, P.C. about this case.