proposed laws

PA Bill Number: HB102

Title: In hunting and furtaking licenses, further providing for eligibility for license.

Description: In hunting and furtaking licenses, further providing for eligibility for license. ...

Last Action: Referred to GAME AND FISHERIES

Last Action Date: May 24, 2019

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Pa Supreme Court agrees to hear case over donor names and Harrisburg's legal defense fund for gun lawsuits :: 11/21/2018

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to weigh in on whether the city of Harrisburg must disclose the names and addresses of people who donated money to help the city defend its gun ordinances.

The Commonwealth Court decided in May in a 5-2 ruling that the city did not have to turn over the names and addresses, affirming a lower court ruling and agreeing with city officials that the information was protected by an exception in the state’s Right-to-Know law for donor information.

The ruling stemmed from a February 2015 Right-to-Know request by a gun rights attorney who had sued the city over its gun ordinances, alleging they are illegal.

One week after the city launched a fundraiser to help pay legal fees to defend the gun ordinances, attorney Joshua Prince asked for the names, addresses and phone numbers of the donors as part of his request for financial records.

The city responded by giving him a redacted list detailing only the number of donations and amounts. He appealed to the state’s open records office, who ruled in his favor that the city had to turn over the entire donor list. The city appealed to Dauphin Court and prevailed. That’s when Prince appealed to Commonwealth Court.

The Supreme Court granted Prince’s appeal to decide this issue:

“Does the city of Harrisburg’s creation of a spreadsheet to show the receipt of funds from donors to the ‘Protect Harrisburg Legal Defense Fund’ constitute a financial record as defined” in chapter 65 of the Pennsylvania Statutes?

The donor exclusion was one of two arguments presented on behalf of city officials in front of the Commonwealth Court. The city’s attorney also argued that donors have a constitutional right to privacy. The privacy issue, however, was not ruled on by the Commonwealth Court.

That means even if Prince prevails on the donor exclusion argument with the Supreme Court, the city likely would continue the battle under a privacy rights argument, dragging the case out for another year or two.

If the city prevails at the Supreme Court, the case would end.

The legal defense fund raised about $5,000 in one week after it launched. But after Prince asked for the names, no additional donations were received. Since then, the city has spent more than $20,000 defending the donor list.

The attorneys argued their respective positions in court last year in front of a full panel of judges.

The lawyer representing Harrisburg, Josh Autry, of the Lavery Law firm, said the state's Right to Know law provides an exception for individual donor names specifically to protect those people and encourage donations.

But Adam Kraut, the lawyer representing Prince, told the panel of Commonwealth judges that the exclusion for donors doesn't apply because the information amounts to a financial record.

The donor exception is not valid for "financial records," under the law.

The law's definition for "financial records," however, leaves room for interpretation so both attorneys spent a chunk of their allotted 15 minutes before the judges arguing for their opposing interpretations.

Autry said the list of donors was simply that: a list of donors. It wasn't a financial ledger or bank statement that would constitute a "financial record."

But Kraut said that the list included donation amounts, which reflect the receipt of funds. That, he argued, met the definition of "financial records," under the law.

Under that "broad" interpretation, however, Autry said the exclusion for personal identifying information relating to a donor would be rendered meaningless because all donor records then would be considered financial records.

Autry argued that legislators could have spelled out that the definition for financial records includes "any record that deals with a financial record," but they didn't. That means that wasn't their intent, he said.

Instead, he said, the definitions provided by legislators for "financial records," referred simply to "accounts, vouchers or contracts" dealing with the receipt or disbursement of funds.

Autry contended that the plaintiff only wants the names and addresses to be able to harass or shame the donors.

Prince previously wrote on his blog that he wanted donors prosecuted on grounds that they are conspiring with the city to violate the state's preemption on gun laws. City officials have said, however that their ordinances are legal and that state preemption is a civil matter.

The two judges who dissented said they believed the donor list clearly met the definition of a financial record and that donor names were not listed in the state's open records law as an exception to financial records.

Meanwhile, the Common Pleas court in late October dismissed Prince’s lawsuit contending that the city’s gun ordinances are illegal.