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Judge Strikes Down County's Attempt to Restore Right-to-Know Request Power

by on July 10, 2015 12:00 PM

A judge shot down the county's attempt to restore its power to answer right-to-know requests related to the judiciary.

The ruling came as part of district attorney Stacy Parks Miller's lawsuit against the county government, which she's suing for releasing her phone records.

Huntingdon County Judge Stewart Kurtz, who is specially presiding over the case, initially filed an injunction in May barring the county from responding to similar information requests until the lawsuit is closed. Parks Miller is asking for the court be held in contempt for responding to a request after the injunction was placed.

The county tried to argue that an "automatic supersedeas" applies because it has an appeal of the injunction filed through the commonwealth court. This legal doctrine essentially means that the appeal "supersedes" the court of common pleas and pauses any injunctions from that court, but Kurtz ruled against the county and restored the injunctions, which he says will remain in full effect during the course of any appeals.

"The District Attorney is pleased that, yet again, the Court has ruled in her favor and against the county," says Bruce Castor, an attorney for Parks Miller. "Not even the County Commissioners are above the law, and the orders keeping them from continuing to violate the law and the Constitution will remain in place."

Castor argued that unique circumstances in this lawsuit give Kurtz the authority to overrule any supersedeas that would typically apply. He also said the right-to-know response in question came before the the appeal was filed, which he says places the decision under Kurtz's authority. 

Centre County attorney Mary Lou Maierhofer argued that the country is in a tough position, because an automatic denial is issued after five days if it doesn't respond to a right-to-know request, so it's essentially responding either way.

The county is also asking for a continuance of a hearing scheduled for July 14 on Parks Miller's motion to hold the county in contempt and sanction it for violating the injunction. County attorney Craig Staudenmaier has a conflict on that date, which he says can't be avoided.

Castor believes the county is fighting a losing battle and says it should stop using taxpayer money to take on Parks Miller in court.

"At some point these commissioners must stop. With them at the helm, the county is devouring itself and using taxpayer money to do it," Castor says. "Reminds me of a snake eating its own tail. Soon there will be nothing left. I’d like the Supreme Court to step in and appoint a special master to get Centre County back on track."

The lawsuit revolves around Parks Miller's phone records that were released by the county, which it argues are public financial records. The district attorney says they're judicial records and therefore not under the county's authority to release to the public.

Legal counsel for the county did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the judge's ruling.

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Zach Berger is the managing editor of StateCollege.com. He graduated from Penn State University in 2014 with a degree in print journalism. Zach enjoys writing about a variety of topics ranging from football to government, music, and everything in between.
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