Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the contested head of the state’s Office of Open Records can keep his job, settling a nearly year-long spat between state Senate Republicans and Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration.
The three-to-one decision found that the governor can’t remove an appointed director without cause, because the agency was created to be free of any “coercive influence from a governor.”
Justice Max Baer, a Democrat, wrote the opinion. A fifth sitting justice on the high court did not participate in the case.
Baer wrote that, just as the Office of Open Records is a unique agency, the ruling, too, is “narrow and unique to the OOR and its executive director.”
“Without independence here at the office, there would always be a question as to why decisions are getting made that involve the governor’s offices,” said Erik Arneson, who was reinstated as director of the Office of Open Records in June following a lower court’s decision that he should keep the position.
The Office of Open Records comes into play to decide appeals of rejected public record requests.
“The vast majority of cases that come to this office are filed by just average, everyday citizens,” said Arneson. “So this is important to people who want to be able to know that they’re getting the records they should be allowed to get and review from their government agencies.”
Wolf had defended his dismissal of Arneson earlier this year, saying he had qualms not with the man himself, but with the last-minute way in which he was picked for the job.
Wolf’s spokesman Jeff Sheridan issued a written statement following the high court’s ruling: “The Wolf Administration looks forward to working with Mr. Arneson to promote transparency.”