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JOHN MCMULLAN v. HELENE WOHLGEMUTH (05/17/71)

decided: May 17, 1971.

JOHN MCMULLAN, JAMES STEELE AND PHILADELPHIA NEWSPAPERS, INC.
v.
HELENE WOHLGEMUTH, SECRETARY OF WELFARE OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA AND CLARENCE JENKINS, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF PHILADELPHIA COUNTY BOARD OF PUBLIC ASSISTANCE, AND THE COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA



Original jurisdiction -- Equity.

COUNSEL

David H. Marion, with him Harold E. Kohn, for plaintiffs.

Marx S. Leopold, General Counsel, with him Peter Brown, Deputy Attorney General, and J. Shane Creamer, Attorney General, for defendants.

Douglas G. Dye, with him Jonathan M. Stein and Harvey N. Schmidt, for intervenor.

Judge Wilkinson, Jr. Opinion by Judge Wilkinson.

Author: Wilkinson

[ 2 Pa. Commw. Page 184]

Plaintiffs seek injunctive relief to inspect, examine, and photocopy records of the Department of Welfare containing the names, addresses, and amounts of assistance received by welfare recipients in the City and County of Philadelphia. Plaintiffs assert their right to such information on any one or all of three grounds: (1) statutory right under the Pennsylvania Right-to-Know Law, Act of June 21, 1957, P.L. 390, § 1, 65 P.S. 66.1; (2) statutory right under the Public Assistance Law, Act of June 13, 1967, P.L. 31, § 425, 62 P.S. 425; (3) constitutional right of freedom of the press under the first and fourteenth amendments of the U.S. Constitution and Article I, section 7, of the Pennsylvania Constitution. They might also have argued a common law right to access to records of their government that show the payment of government funds. See Chief Justice Maxey's opinion in Simon Election Case, 353 Pa. 514, 46 A.2d 243 (1940) ("Public records are available to the inspection of any citizens at all reasonable times.")

The defendants contend: (1) preliminary injunctive relief is not appropriate; (2) the names and addresses and amounts of assistance are not public records under the Right-to-Know Law; (3) the Public Assistance Law, by giving limited access to addresses and amounts, has by necessary inference prohibited the access to names, and by giving the Department of Welfare the right to promulgate regulations, gave statutory authority to sections 4142 and 4143 of the regulations which

[ 2 Pa. Commw. Page 185]

    prohibit access to names, addresses and amounts by plaintiffs. On these three bases, without going into the constitutional questions, defendants assert plaintiffs' rights are not sufficiently clear to warrant temporary injunctive relief.

We would agree with defendants as to the insufficiency of the clarity of the right with regard to a temporary injunction if the order were to include the right to publish names. No opinion is expressed here on the right to publish names, addresses and amounts, even if "newsworthy", until further argument is heard either on a subsequent request under the temporary injunction or on the disposition of the case on its merits.

The general law of Pennsylvania with regard to the right to inspect public records was ably set forth by Justice Benjamin R. Jones in Wiley v. Woods, 393 Pa. 341, 141 A.2d 844 (1958), wherein he distinguishes between the right to notes of investigations and the right to examine the records of official actions taken by agencies or departments as a result of investigations. The case denied the right of plaintiffs to have access to the investigation notes. Everything Justice Jones states in his opinion is not only consistent with but indeed formed the polar star which served as the guide to the formation of the limited temporary injunction which denies the plaintiff access to files.

The Attorney General of Pennsylvania, following the enactment of the Right-to-Know Law, reversed a previous opinion of his office and ruled that the names and other information regarding the amounts of refunds received by taxpayers from the Board of Finance and Revenue, previously considered confidential, were made available for public inspection by the Right-to-Know Law. Attorney General's Opinion October 31, 1957, 13 D. & C. 2d 336 (1957). Most of the ...


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