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Home News v. State

June 17, 1996


On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

The opinion of the Court was delivered by Stein, J. Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Handler, Pollock, O'hern, Garibaldi and Coleman join in Justice Stein's opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stein

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).


Argued February 13, 1996 -- Decided June 17, 1996

STEIN, J., writing for a unanimous Court.

This appeal requires the Court to determine whether the Right-to-Know Law, N.J.S.A.47:1A-1 - 4, or the common-law right to inspect public documents entitle The Home News (Home News) to receive cause-of-death information on a death certificate.

In 1991, five-year-old Timothy Wiltsey disappeared from a fairground in Sayreville. His body was found months later in a drainage area in Edison Township. The Wiltsey case generated significant public interest and media coverage. In February 1994, Home News, a daily newspaper, requested a copy of Timothy's death certificate from the Registrar of Vital Statistics of Edison (Registrar). N.J.S.A.26:8-62 requires that State registrars or other custodians of vital records supply certified copies of records, including records of death, to "any applicant." However, N.J.A.C.8:2A-1.2(the regulation) provides that information concerning the cause of death is to be omitted from death certificates unless the applicant is on a short list of persons that includes the decedent's executor, surviving spouse or parent, or one who receives the consent of one of the listed persons, or when the applicant seeks the information for research or public-health purposes.

The regulation was promulgated by the Department of Health (DOH) to effectuate the confidentiality provisions of the Cancer Registry Act, the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) Assistance Act, and the Registration of Vital Statistics Act. The AIDS Assistance Act and the Cancer Registry Act require that cases of those diseases be reported to DOH for purposes of research and coordination of treatment programs. Sections of the Registration of Vital Statistics Act established the same procedures for birth defects. Each of those statutes require that "personal and sensitive medical information" be kept confidential. By limiting disclosure of cause-of-death information on death certificates, the regulation protects the privacy of those persons who die of AIDS, cancer, or birth defects.

Because Home News was not one of the persons permitted by the regulation to receive the information, the Registrar provided only a partial copy of the death certificate, omitting the information concerning the cause of death. Home News filed a complaint and order to show cause, pursuant to the Right-to-Know Law and the common-law right to inspect public documents, seeking a judgment setting aside the regulation and compelling the disclosure of the complete death certificate.

The matter was transferred to the Appellate Division pursuant to Court Rule. The Appellate Division upheld the regulation and dismissed the complaint, finding that the regulation was a proper exercise of DOH's statutory authority to promulgate regulations necessary to enforce the laws relating to vital statistics. The court reasoned that the regulation achieved a compromise between the statutory duty to provide copies of death certificates and the mandate of the AIDS Assistance Act to protect the confidentiality of those with AIDS. The court recognized that Timothy Wiltsey's death was not AIDS related, but concluded that withholding the cause of death in all cases was a reasonable exercise of rulemaking authority because, if the cause of death are excluded only in AIDS cases, the recipient of a death certificate with an omitted cause of death would be able to deduce that the decedent had died of AIDS. Thus, in addition to the primary purpose of preventing direct disclosure of the cause of death of AIDS victims, the Appellate Division found a secondary, preventative interest that justified blanket non-disclosure. On the issue of the common-law right of access to public documents, the Appellate Division held that the newspaper's interest must yield to the strong public policy for confidentiality identified in the AIDS Assistance Act.

The Supreme Court granted Home News's petition for certification.

HELD: Under the common law right to inspect public documents, the interest of The Home News in receiving the cause-of-death information on Timothy Wiltsey's death certificate outweighs the importance of preserving the confidentiality of the death certificate it seeks; therefore, the complete death certificate must be disclosed.

1. Under the Right-to-Know Law, New Jersey citizens have an absolute right to inspect, copy, or purchase records required by law to be made, maintained or kept on file by public officials. Death certificates constitute Right-to-Know records. However, the Court decides this case pursuant to the common-law right of access to public documents. The common-law right to inspect documents is a qualified right. A written memorial made by a public officer in the exercise of a public function constitutes a common-law public record. A death certificate is a common-law public record. Under the common law, there is a threshold standing requirement that the applicant have an interest in the subject matter of the material sought. In addition, the applicant must establish that the interest in disclosure outweighs the public's interest in maintaining confidentiality. (pp. 5-7)

2. To satisfy the standing requirement, the applicant's interest need not be personal; a citizen's concern about a public problem is sufficient interest for purposes of the standing. The role of the press as "the eyes and ears of the public" generally is sufficient to confer standing on a newspaper that seeks access to public documents. A legitimate, private profit motive is also sufficient to confer standing. Thus, the newsworthiness and commercial value of this public interest story cleary suffices to confer standing on Home News under the common-law right of access. In balancing the applicant's interest in the public record against the public's interest in maintaining confidentiality, courts will consider whether the applicant's interest is premised on a purpose that tends ...

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