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NJ Open Government Notes

Who is T.S. and why is he or she suing the Monmouth County Prosecutor and seeking to have the lawsuit sealed by the court?

Monmouth County Prosecutor
Christopher J. Gramiccioni

Update 11/16/17: I spoke with Judge Thornton’s law clerk today and learned that the hearing on sealing the record will be held on November 17, 2017 at 2:30 p.m. instead of 1:30 p.m. and that if a settlement conference being held in the judge’s chambers at 1:30 p.m. results in settlement, the sealing motion will become moot and the records in the court’s file that are not otherwise exempt will become open to the public.  I also learned that the plaintiff’s name is Timothy Snyder and that he is an adult. According to the law clerk, Snyder initially filed using his initials T.S. but Judge Thornton disallowed the pleading and required Snyder to refile an amended pleading identifying him by his full name.  Unfortunately, the person who updates the court’s on-line docket did not change the plaintiff’s name in the public, on-line record.  That has been corrected and Timothy Snyder’s full name now appears on the on-line docket.
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Monmouth County Assignment Judge Lisa P. Thornton has permitted me to participate in a November 17, 2017, 1:30 p.m. hearing that will determine whether pleadings filed by an unidentified person in a civil case against Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher J. Gramiccioni will be released to the public or sealed away from public view.

The lawsuit, which bears Docket No. MON-L-2856-16, was filed on August 4, 2016 by a person identified only by the initials “T.S.”  I recently stumbled upon the case while randomly searching the New Jersey Superior Court’s on-line docket (a horribly outdated and difficult to use system–click here for my article on how to best navigate it).  Intrigued, I had my non-profit submit an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request for T.S.’s amended civil complaint but was informed by Jennifer Lipp, the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office’s records custodian, that because of her “duty to protect people’s privacy interests including medical, mental health, substance addiction, domestic violence, among other privacy interests,” she would not release even a redacted copy of the lawsuit even though the Motion to Seal had not yet been decided. “Knowing there is a pending motion before the Assignment Judge could also be an ethical violation for me,” she wrote in her October 31, 2017 e-mail.

I then submitted a records request under New Jersey Court Rule 1:38 (the courts are not subject to OPRA) for a copy of the amended complaint as well as the briefs and certifications filed in support of and in opposition to the Motion to Seal.  In subsequent conversations with Judge Thornton’s law clerk I was told that I would not receive any of the requested documents unless and until the Motion to Seal was heard and denied.  But, I was invited to submit a written argument in opposition to the motion and to participate in hearing at which the motion will be heard.

My opposition brief was difficult to write because I have not been allowed to know the nature of the lawsuit or any of the factual allegations underlying it.  Nor have I been allowed to see T.S.’s arguments on why he or she believes that the lawsuit should be sealed.  All I know is that the case is of type “701–Prerogative Writs.” Basically, I’m almost completely in the dark and will hopefully be given a few crumbs of information during the November 17th hearing.

The hearing will presumably be open to the public.  Anyone who wishes to observe should call Judge Thornton’s chambers at 732-677-4100 the day prior to make sure that the hearing hasn’t been cancelled or postponed.

By John Paff

Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project