After several threats or attacks against government officials and their families in recent years, New Jersey state legislators want to shield their home addresses from the public — over the objections of government transparency activists.
Three bills moving through the state's Legislature would no longer define a public official’s home address as a public record and would remove their addresses from other forms that are public, such as financial disclosures.
“We are living in a different day and age, in which people’s personal information is a click of a button away,” Assembly Speaker Craig J. Coughlin and Majority Leader Louis D. Greenwald said in a joint written statement.
They point to the attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, the threat against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and the shooting death of the son of Esther Salas, a federal judge in New Jersey.
“That gives real merit to a need for caution and so, in an effort to protect legislators, elected and appointed officials, and their families while balancing our duty toward transparency as elected officials, these bills responsibly shield home addresses,” the joint statement said.
In July 2020, Salas’ son, Daniel Anderl, was shot and killed at their front door when he tried to stop a gunman from entering the home and killing the judge. The man authorities believe was the gunman was found dead the next day.
One of the new proposed bills includes a provision that the State Election Law Enforcement Commission would confirm that elected officials live in their districts. But that hasn't assuaged good government advocates.
“Public records belong to the public,” Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said. “And so I think it's really important that the public be able to see the business that's going on on their behalf.”
It’s important to know whether elected officials live in the district they represent or whether they pay the taxes on their homes, he said.
Rasmussen says the bills will be unwieldy for state and local employees because many public documents include home addresses. For example, lawyers routinely use the state’s open records law to obtain copies of traffic tickets so they can send marketing materials to people who may need their services. He doesn’t see how every local court, police department and tax collector is going to keep track of who is an official in their records so their address can be scrubbed out.
“I think that's a nightmare. I think it's unworkable,” Rasmussen said. “I think basic government functions could not happen if that has to happen first.”
The proposed bills don’t shield the addresses of other groups that could be targeted for hate, such as LGBTQ individuals or members of religious and ethnic minorities.
The bills have been approved by committees in the state Senate and Assembly, and would next be slated for votes by each chamber.