Commentary

In praise of CJ Griffin, who fights to shine a spotlight on N.J. government | Opinion

March 18, 2022 3:37 pm

CJ Griffin

New Jerseyans have a reason to celebrate this Sunshine Week: We have CJ Griffin.

Sunshine Week is when First Amendment and press freedom organizations nationwide call attention to the importance of freedom of information laws. And here in the Garden State, those of us who fight for access to public records are blessed to have Griffin on our side.

A lawyer who lives in Jersey City, Griffin has spent a decade prying public documents from the grips of officials who’d prefer to keep them under lock-and-key. She hasn’t always been successful — her first Open Public Records Act case was an attempt to get security footage out of Bloomfield Township, and she lost at the Supreme Court — but her successes have been so huge, that hardly matters.

In the last two weeks alone, Griffin has been the attorney behind two major public records victories out of the Supreme Court, one that opens up settlement agreements signed by public entities to public viewing, and another that says police internal affairs records should not be private when the public’s interest in them outweighs an officer’s confidentiality concerns.

It’s hard to overstate the significance of the second decision in a state where internal police documents are damn near impossible to obtain. Even in the case of Neptune cop Philip Seidle, who murdered his ex-wife on a public street, local and state officials spent years fighting to keep records about him secret, handing them over only after a protracted legal fight.

And what did those records show? That police officials allowed Seidle to remain an armed officer even after a dozen recorded instances of domestic violence involving him and his wife. Sounds like information the public should know without having to spend years fighting in court, no?

John Paff, who CJ represented in the case that led to the Supreme Court decision on settlement agreements, called her a “top-notch researcher and litigator” who has a remarkable ability to select cases that move the needle toward greater transparency.

“CJ is successful primarily because, in addition to being a hard worker, she genuinely and passionately cares about open government,” Paff told me. “It’s in her DNA.”

Griffin, a partner at Pashman Stein Walder Hayden and director of the firm’s public interest center, said public records cases “fell on my plate” initially (she joined Pashman Stein in 2012 to handle employment law). But she’s since become a fierce advocate for private citizens and newspapers and their reporters seeking public records in court.

“I became passionate about the importance of transparency,” she told me.

(Griffin has worked with the New Jersey Monitor on a legal matter, but I thought she was a superhero way before then.)

Ideally, we wouldn’t need to rely on Griffin so much. But the gatekeepers of public records in New Jersey are often willing to go to extreme lengths to make sure even the most obviously public documents stay out of the public’s hands. For big-pocketed media companies, it may make sense to go to court every time. For others, including private citizens, that’s rarely feasible.

Until the Legislature decides to modernize OPRA, I’m grateful we have Griffin to help us in our fight.

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Terrence T. McDonald
Terrence T. McDonald

Editor Terrence T. McDonald is a native New Jerseyan who has worked for newspapers in the Garden State for more than 15 years. He has covered everything from Trenton politics to the smallest of municipal squabbles, exposing public corruption and general malfeasance at every level of government. Terrence won 23 New Jersey Press Association awards and two Tim O’Brien Awards for Investigative Journalism using the Open Public Records Act from the New Jersey chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. One politician forced to resign in disgrace because of Terrence’s reporting called him a "political poison pen journalist.”

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