The Associated Press reported, on December 29, 2009, in a brief article entitled Pa. judge: Coroner can delay filing autopsy report that "[a] county judge in south-central Pennsylvania says a coroner doesn't have to release the means of death of a 21-year-old man until the end of January."
Cumberland County Coroner Michael Norris refused to release the means of death for Shippensburg University football player Thomas Rainey, a Landisville man who died in an accident in April. Authorities have said the death wasn't suspicious.I have not read the county court's opinion disposing of the issue, because I did not see it posted online yet among available Cumberland County, PA Judicial Opinions.
WGAL-TV asked President Judge Edgar Bayley to order the coroner to release the information.
Bayley says the Right-to-Know Law that took effect this year doesn't supersede the state Coroner's Act. That law requires the autopsy report to be filed within 30 days of the end of the calendar year in which the deaths occurred.
However, one can read the entire record of the underlying administrative proceedings and the final determination opinion & order that was appealed to the Cumberland County Court, by way of the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, under its Docket No. AP 2009-0337, which includes that Office's Final Determination Opinion, dated July 24, 2009 (PDF, 10 pages).
That Final Determination recited the arguments of the parties, and noted the conflict in the new, sweeping Right-to-Know Law effective January 1, 2009, versus Pennsylvania Coroner's Laws, including the “Coroner’s Act,” 16 P.S. §§ 1214 and 1231-1260, as contained in the County Code, Act of August 9, 1955, P.L. 323, as amended.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court's January 22, 2009 opinion in Penn Jersey Advance, Inc., d/b/a Easton Publishing Company v. Grim, 599 Pa. 534 (2009) had made it clear that autopsy reports are official records, and thus are open to the public. But, in a footnote, the effect of the new Right-to-Know Law was left uncertain:
We note that section 708(b)(20) of the recently-effective Act 3 of 2008, the “Right-to-Know Law,” provides an exception from public access for certain records relating to autopsies. See 65 P.S. § 67.708(b)(20).The question then became, when does an autopsy report become such a public record available for inspection under the new open records law?
The Right-to-Know Law further provides that “[i]f the provisions of this act regarding access to records conflict with any other Federal or State law, the provisions of this act shall not apply.” See 65 P.S. § 67.3101.1.
The Right-to-Know Law became effective on January 1, 2009, see 65 P.S. § 67.3104(3), and thus has no application to the events underlying this case..
Accordingly, we express no opinion at this time on the relationship between the Coroner’s Act and the Right-to-Know Law. [Paragraphing applied.]
This one trial court now says: within 30 days of the end of the calendar year in which the death occurred, pursuant to the Coroner's laws, which prevail over the Right-to-Know law.
That can be a long time for news organizations wanting to report a story. So, stay tuned to see if that decision is appealed further or if legislative change is advocated.