In a 4-3 decision, the majority said the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board erred in ignoring an anti-gambling activist's 2009 request for records of communication between the regulatory agency and applicants competing for a resort casino license that was ultimately awarded to a facility in Valley Forge.
"We conclude that the General Assembly intended that state and local agencies should presume that written requests for records are right-to-know requests," Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt wrote in the majority opinion.
Writing for the minority, Judge Dan Pellegrini sharply disagreed. He said the majority's interpretation conflicts with the "plain language" in the law that says written requests "must be addressed" to the designated open-records officer in each agency.
"The majority's holding would make an unaddressed request written on the back of a brown paper bag and given to a PennDOT plow driver by the side of the road on a snowy winter night a valid Right-to-Know Law request," Pellegrini said.
Leavitt cited the 2009 overhaul of the law in which lawmakers created a legal presumption that a government record is open to the public unless an agency can prove it is exempt from the law.
The judge said lawmakers did not intend such a rigid interpretation of the requirement that requests be addressed to the open-records officer. She noted that the same section of the law directs other employees who receive records requests to forward them to the open-records officer.
"The requirement that a written request be 'addressed' to the open-records officer does not mean that it contain a formal salutation: 'Dear Open-Records Officer,'" she said. "Rather, it means simply that written requests must be 'directed' to the open-records office, a word synonymous with 'addressed.'"
The court did not rule on whether the records in question should be disclosed but remanded those questions to the state Office of Open Records for further consideration.
The requester, Jim Schneller said, "This is very nice for Pennsylvanians. People can't be bent over a barrel" for technical shortcomings.
Gaming board spokesman Doug Harbach said officials there were "evaluating our options."
The gaming board had said it was not obliged to respond to the request that Schneller emailed to a press aide because it did not say it was filed under the Right-to-Know Law and was not submitted on an official form, according to court papers.
When the board did not respond within the five business days required by the right-to-know law, the Delaware County resident mounted a successful appeal to the state Office of Open Records and the board appealed that decision to the Commonwealth Court.
Terry Mutchler, executive director of the open-records office, called the decision "a victory for Pennsylvania citizens who are interested in access with ease" to government records,
Mutchler said the ruling applies even to correspondence in which records requests are intermingled with other subjects, although she said people familiar with the right-to-know law should follow agency procedures to facilitate handling of their requests.
"Agencies are going to have to pay attention in a different way," she said.
A ruling in favor of the board would have affirmed the concept that citizens seeking government records need "a magic form (and) magic language," she said.