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Attorneys for County, DA Clash Over Issues Behind Right to Know Lawsuits

by on June 24, 2015 12:37 PM

Centre County Commissioner Chris Exarchos acknowledges that the “issues are getting complex and convoluted” in the various lawsuits being waged against the county government. 

That’s why the commissioners brought their attorney, Mary Lou Maierhofer, to their public meeting on Tuesday in attempt to clear up some of the confusion.

District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller, Court of Common Pleas Judge Jonathan Grine and Magisterial District Judge Kelley Gillette-Walker are each currently suing the county in three separate but very similar lawsuits.

All three say the county illegally released some of their phone records to defense attorneys in response to Right to Know Requests. Specially presiding Huntingdon County Judge Stewart Kurtz has preliminarily ruled against the county in all three suits, but the county is appealing those decisions to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court.

Maierhofer says the key issue behind these lawsuits is government transparency. She says the county had a legal obligation to provide the judges’ and the DA’s phone records because Pennsylvania’s Right to Know law requires the county to release any requested public documents.

“The Right to Know law is like a huge window, with the county on one side, and the public on the other looking in to see what government officials are doing,” Maierhofer says. “… We want open government, and this is the way its handled.”

Maierhofer acknowledges that there are some exceptions to the Right to Know law, but maintains that the county was correct to release the records. 

Stacy Parks Miller and her attorney Bruce Castor frame the issue very differently.

Castor draws attention to the fact that the records were used by defense attorneys to allege that some judges may have been biased towards the DA’s office by arguing that judges and prosecutors were texting each other too frequently. Parks Miller was never disqualified from any cases in which these allegations were made.

Castor says the allegation of bias is unfair and unfounded because judges and prosecutors often have to remain in contact for various reasons, such as serving on board and commissions or scheduling arraignments. He says that, by releasing the records, the county assisted in “a witch hunt against a DA who wins cases.”

Castor also argues that a real issue in this lawsuit is the balance of power between the judicial and executive branches of county government. He and Parks Miller have argued that the phone records are judicial records the county had no authority to release, which Judge Kurtz has agreed with.

“One of the key ‘checks and balances’ on government power is the independence of law enforcement and the judiciary, something these commissioners seem determined to wipe out placing themselves above the law’s ‘checks and balances’ system,” Castor says in an email.

But Maierhofer, once again, portrays the issue in a completely different light.

She says the only reasons these lawsuits are such an issue is because the Right to Know law is only eight years old. Because the law is relatively new, Maierhofer says it suffers from “a lot of ambiguity” concerning exactly what kinds of records government officials are required to release.

Despite Judge Kurtz’s rulings to the contrary, Maierhofer believes the judges’ and DA’s phone records are public financial records the county was obligated to release. She says there is conflicting case law on this topic, and that these lawsuits may set a precedent for Right to Know litigation in the future. 

A hearing in the lawsuit between the county and Parks Miller is scheduled for July 14 at 1:30 p.m. in front of Judge Kurtz.

 

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Michael Martin Garrett is a reporter and editor for StateCollege.com who covers local government, the courts, the arts and writes the Keeping the Faith column. He's a Penn State alumnus, a published poet and the bassist in a local indie rock band.
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