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Open Records Ruling Challenges Judge's Position in Right to Know Controversy

by on July 21, 2015 6:15 AM

A ruling from the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records has thrown a new monkey wrench into the ongoing dispute over Right to Know requests in Centre County.

In May, Centre County Public Defender David Crowley submitted a RTK request seeking phone records of contact between District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller and Judge Bradley Lunsford – but that request was denied.

However, Crowley appealed the denial to the Office of Open Records, which issued a ruling on Monday demanding the county turn over the requested documents. The OOR says the requested records are public financial documents the county is legally obligated to release.

“There’s been a lot of rumor and innuendo going around about inappropriate contact [between judges and prosecutors], and I’m just trying to get to the bottom of it,” Crowley says. “If there’s no inordinate contact, that will be the end of it. If there is, we may need to take a look at each individual case that may have been impacted.”

Crowley estimates that seven or eight cases may be affected by allegations of inappropriate contact. District Attorney Parks Miller has repeatedly denied such allegations, calling them baseless attacks because judges and prosecutors have frequent contact due to the nature of their jobs.

Monday’s OOR ruling is yet another twist in an evolving series of interlocking lawsuits between the county and several judicial employees.

Judges Jonathan Grine and Kelley Gillette-Walker, as well as Stacy Parks Miller, are each suing Centre County for releasing some of their cell phone records in response to Right to Know Requests.

All three argue that the phone records are actually judicial records the county has no authority to release, and that the county violated the separation of powers between different branches of government by releasing the documents. 

Huntingdon County Senior Judge Stewart Kurtz, who is specially presiding over the three lawsuits, has issued an order preventing the county from responding to Right to Know requests for any judicial records until the lawsuits are resolved. He has ruled that the documents are judicial records, although the county is currently appealing that decision.

The county used Kurtz’s order as the basis of its decision to deny Crowley’s request. In Crowley’s appeal to the OOR, he argued that Kurtz was wrong to rule that the requested records were judicial records instead of public financial documents.

In the ruling, the OOR agrees with Crowley's position.

“The requested records were created by a third party vendor and submitted to the county for payment for services rendered. To this extent, they can only be viewed as ‘financial records’ of the county,” the decision reads.

Bruce Castor, an attorney for Stacy Parks Miller, adamantly disagrees with this argument. He says the records are clearly judicial documents, as evidenced by Judge Kurtz’s ruling and other case law about RTK requests.

Castor says the county failed to forward Crowley’s request to the DA’s office, as Kurtz’s order requires the county to do. By denying the request and instead of forwarding it to Parks Miller, Castor says the county purposefully attempted to “frustrate the judge’s intent and set up this legal contradiction” by giving Crowley a vehicle to take his appeal to the Office of Open Records.

Because Castor claims the county purposefully set up this “dual appeals track” to circumvent Judge Kurtz’s authority, he and Parks Miller want the county held in contempt of court. A hearing on the contempt motion was scheduled for last week, but has been postponed until September.

Centre County’s attorney Mary Lou Maierhofer says the county cannot be held in contempt of court because the county did not actually respond to Crowley’s RTK request. Instead, she says the county did nothing and did not respond as per Kurtz’s order, which automatically counted as a denial after five days and gave Crowley the option of appeal. 

Maierhofer also says the OOR ruling is a victory for Centre County, which has consistently argued that the disputed records are public financial documents.

“This has really vindicated what the county commissioners have been arguing, that these are financial records that they public has a right to see,” Maierhofer says. “You want your public officials to be open regarding what’s going on in government, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

However, the OOR decision reached a completely different conclusion than Judge Kurtz did in his order, making it unclear how the county will proceed.

Maierhofer says she will have to consult with the county and with Judge Kurtz about Monday’s ruling from the OOR to determine what the next step in the lawsuit will be.

Castor says Kurtz is a higher authority than the OOR, meaning his order preventing the county from releasing records takes precedence over the OOR’s determination.

Castor also points out that the OOR recently denied a similar appeal from a nonprofit organization called Pennsylvanians for Union Reform. In that decision, Castor notes that the OOR said “the exact same records” were actually judicial records outside the jurisdiction of the OOR.

 

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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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