The high court ruled 5-1 in favor of a south-central Pennsylvania television station that was turned down when it sought such records from the Cumberland County coroner after a Shippensburg University football player died more than three years ago.
The ruling overturned decisions by the Office of Open Records, a county judge and Commonwealth Court, which had all ruled against WGAL-TV and in favor of then-coroner Michael Norris.
The station wanted information about the death of Thomas Rainey, 19, inside his apartment in April 2009. Authorities said Rainey's death was not suspicious.
The earlier rulings, siding with Norris, had cited a provision of the Coroner's Act that said their records must be made public for each year by the end of the following January. But the Supreme Court majority said public access requirements under the Right-to-Know Law are not in conflict with the other law, making the records more immediately available.
The court said both laws provide immediate access to cause and manner death records.
In the dissent, Justice J. Michael Eakin said the immediate access under the Coroner's Act is not mandatory, so the two laws are in conflict and therefore the Coroner's Act trumps the Right-to-Know Law. He said he would have upheld Commonwealth Court.
"The Coroner's Act only requires disclosure of cause and manner of death reports by a coroner once a year; earlier disclosure is discretionary with the coroner," Eakin wrote. "The provision of the RTKL requiring immediate disclosure of such reports upon request is thus not reconcilable with the Coroner's Act."
A lawyer for WGAL parent company Hearst Corp. called the decision an important victory for public information.
"The principle was incredibly important because if you could find a conflict between two laws that require disclosure just on the basis of the timing, you could have conflicts between the Right-to-Know Law and many other laws," said Hearst deputy general counsel Jonathan Donnellan, who argued the case.
The Right-to-Know Law prohibits access to autopsies, and the ruling does not change that.
A phone message left for the lawyer listed in the docket sheet for Norris was not immediately returned.
Majority ruling: http://www.pacourts.us/OpPosting/Supreme/out/J-69-2012mo.pdf