A bad bill that stifles the public's right to know is still a bad bill, especially when it gets resurrected a second time.
Senate Bill 961 was approved Tuesday by the Senate Local Government Committee, chaired by state Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-Blair.
The bill, as currently written, would force the public to use the Right-to-Know Law to request access to all coroners' records - even the name of the deceased and the cause and manner of death. Right-to-Know has been more strictly interpreted by the courts than the Coroner's Act, which makes records open.
"In order to acquire consistency, the coroners' association has determined that the full disclosure of all the information that may be in an autopsy report should not be disclosed," Altoona attorney William Haberstroh, the solicitor of the Pennsylvania State Coroners Association, told The Associated Press.
Among the reasons he cited was a federal law that provides for privacy of health records, which we believe is a very strained reading of the law and doesn't apply.
Under Right-to-Know, the coroner could deny the information and force the requester to petition the state Office of Open Records and the local and state courts for intervention. It could be a lengthy fight just over a name.
It's a unnecessary fight because Senate Bill 961 is an unnecessary bill. If coroners would only follow the Coroner's Act they are sworn to uphold, there wouldn't be a problem.
Access to these records is vital not only because the coroners of Pennsylvania are elected officials but they also serve as a strong force in the criminal justice system, with more powers at times than police - particularly through inquests to determine causes and manners of deaths.
Between 1998 and 2004, the late Pete Shellem of the Patriot-News of Harrisburg used coroner's reports in his reporting that resulted in four people, who had served a combined 66 years in prison, being set free. If Senate Bill 961 becomes law, such access could be tied up for years with innocent people remaining behind bars for crimes they did not commit.
Barry Laughman was freed in 2003 after Shellem found new evidence casting doubt on his conviction for the 1998 rape and murder of a relative.
"I believe Laughman would have served the rest of his natural life in jail for a murder he did not commit if not for Pete Shellem," attorney William C. Costopoulos told the American Journalism Review in 2007.
Access to public records helps protect the system from injustices occurring.
Gov. Ed Rendell, when he vetoed an identical bill last General Assembly session, agreed with the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, which wrote: "There is no justification for such draconian restrictions - and significant public policy reasons why this information must remain public."
We urge lawmakers to resist the urge to quickly shove this bill through the General Assembly.
Keep the public records of the coroner's office public.