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County Commissioners Reportedly Sued by Two Centre County Judges

by on March 17, 2015 12:31 PM

More trouble is brewing in the Centre County government and judicial system.

Centre County Common Pleas Judge Jonathan Grine and Magisterial District Judge Kelley Gillette-Walker are reportedly suing the Centre County Board of Commissioners for alleged violations of the judges’ civil liberties.

In related news, an administrative order signed on Monday by Centre County President Judge Thomas Kistler may now limit the kinds of information individuals can request from the county court system.

The commissioners discussed the new lawsuit and court order at their Tuesday meeting. Centre County Solicitor Louis Glantz explained that the two judges filed a civil complaint in the court of common pleas on Monday, in which they allege that “past conduct of the county in releasing records has violated the judges’ constitutional and civil liberties.”

He said that much of the anger is related to Right to Know requests filed with the county over the last five months seeking the Verizon phone records of county judges.

In several different criminal cases over the past few months, local defense attorneys used records of text messages between judges and prosecutors to allege bias and preferential treatment. None of the records obtained revealed the contents of the text messages, only the times they were sent and received.

“What makes this very disconcerting for me is that all of the actions this office has taken in regards to Right to Know requests were done in consultation with Judge Kistler,” said commissioner Chris Exarchos. “It’s not like we were just releasing information all willy-nilly, so to see this lawsuit come out of the blue when we’d been in contact with Kistler seems very disingenuous.”

But Kistler says in an email that any suggestion that he was involved with responding to recent Right to Know requests is "erroneous."

Glantz said the judges' lawsuit wants a judge to rule that the county was wrong to release the phone records and keep it from doing so in the future.  However, he also pointed out that Monday’s administrative order from Judge Kistler already seems to fulfill that request.

The order stipulates that the county administrator should deny any Right to Know requests involving any members of the county judicial system. The order also states the original request and any copies should be forwarded to the Centre County Court Administrator, who serves as the court’s Right to Know officer and will decide what information is appropriate to release. 

Kistler says the administrative order was the result of a meeting held in his chambers last Friday. The meeting included input from every Centre County common pleas judge, the County Solicitor, the County Administrator, the Court Administrator, one Magisterial District Judge and representatives from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, Kistler says.

At the Tuesday commissioners meeting, Glantz explained that, as a matter of law, judges and judicial systems typically respond to fewer Right to Know requests due to the sensitive nature of their work. Glantz said the county released the phone records because they were considered “financial records,” which are typically provided when requested.

Judge Grine says the county did not follow Pennsylvania's Right to Know law when it chose to release judges' phone records.

"It is more than clear from the Right to Know Law and Pennsylvania case law that the records of the judiciary, except for financial records, are not subject to disclosure," Grine says in an email. "Providing my phone number and related information to any third party is a violation of the Right to Know Law as phone numbers and call logs are not financial records."

Glantz said whether or not the phone records can be considered "financial records" could have important legal implications.

“I think there’s going to be statewide interest in this. It raises the question of what is a ‘financial record’ for a court and how narrowly that should be construed,” Glantz said. “This could result in virtually nothing being open for requests, or it could go the other way.”

Glantz said the judges’ complaint is filed under seal and is not available to the public, though the county may attempt to have the file unsealed. StateCollege.com was unable to independently obtain a copy of the complaint. Gillette-Walker declined comment when contacted by StateCollege.com.

Commissioners Michael Pipe, Steve Dershem and Exarchos unanimously approved a motion for county staff to begin looking for legal counsel with expertise in Right to Know litigation to advise and represent the county.

“I’ve sat back and watched a lot of things transpire over this recent term, but I never thought I’d be in a situation where I'd be questioned for being forthcoming with information,” Dershem said. “...These are dark days.”

This is the second time this year the commissioners have been forced to lawyer up.

In January, the commissioners were presented with an affidavit signed by Michelle Shutt – a former paralegal in the county district attorney’s office – alleging that Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller forged a judge’s signature on a fake court order.

In response, the commissioners hired the law firm of Abom and Kutulakis to serve as special counsel. As of Tuesday, Centre County Administrator Tim Boyde says the county has spent about $24,000 on legal fees since January. He has also told StateCollege.com that the county has a “contingency fund” of about $250,000 dollars to offset unexpected expenses.

No charges have been filed related to the forgery allegations against Parks Miller, who denies the allegations. Multiple sources confirm that the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General is investigating the allegations. Parks Miller and her attorney, Bruce Castor, have argued that commissioners are engaged in a political and personal attack against the district attorney.

Other strange occurrences have plagued the court system in recent months.

Kistler was tapped to move up the state supreme court, but withdrew his nomination after a questionable email he sent in 2013 became public last month. He said his withdrawal had nothing to do with the email, but was motivated by “a great deal of unrest” in the county court system.

Judge Bradley Lunsford – one the judges who has been accused of bias based involving those phone records – is currently barred from hearing any criminal cases except DUIs. In December, the Centre County Prothonotary office also raised concerns that Lunsford had improperly removed documents from public files. Lunsford responded that he had returned the documents in question, and that the issue was a misunderstanding.

Editor's note: This story was updated at 3:08 p.m. to include comment from Judge Grine and at 4:45 p.m. to include comment from Judge Kistler.

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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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