In a case that could have ramifications for government transparency, New York’s top judges may decide whether details about taxpayer-funded teacher pensions should remain hidden or be open to the public.

Lawyers for the two sides in the case — Empire Center think tank, which two years ago was rebuffed when it sought retired teachers’ names and pensions; and retirement systems operated by the state and New York City — squared off Wednesday at the Court of Appeals.

The dispute began when Empire Center, which tracks government spending, wanted to update its databases.

Unlike the state’s Common Retirement Fund, which represents state workers other than teachers, however, the state Teachers Retirement System and its New York City counterpart held back the names.

The state’s case for hiding the names of retired teachers centered on general privacy concerns as well as questions about whether a “beneficiary” — which includes a surviving spouse who collects a pension — is the same as a “retiree.”

“It’s out there on the Internet. It can be used for identity theft,” Jeffrey Lang, representing the TRS said, referring to Empire Center and other databases that can list the names and pension amounts of retired teachers.

“I’m not sure that works,” said Judge Eugene Piggot, saying that there are numerous ways for a person’s name to be on the Internet.

Alia Smith, arguing for the Manhattan Institute, said “there is zero evidence in the record … that there has been any significant invasion of privacy” from disclosing the names and amounts of public pensions.

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman at several points spoke of the “salutory” effect of making names and pensions available, given the concern over public pensions and their cost. “What about the taxpayers’ right to know?” he asked.

Other organizations have joined in the suit by filing friend of the court briefs.

New York State United Teachers and the Public Employees Federation unions have filed on behalf the TRS, while the Times Union has filed on behalf of the Empire Center.

One of the arguments for transparency is that it fosters the watchdog role that the press and public can play in uncovering abuses such as double dipping or the improper payment of pensions to those who are still working.

On the other side, supporters of the teachers systems say that excluding names doesn’t mean that people can analyze and understand how public pension dollars are being spent.

© 2014, Albany Times Union

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