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Order Limiting Right to Know Requests Temporarily Lifted; ACLU Joins Lawsuit Between Judges & County Government

by on March 23, 2015 12:39 PM

The court order limiting the information Centre County residents can request from the county government has been lifted – at least for now.

Last week, Centre County President Judge Thomas Kistler signed an administrative order that required the county government to deny any pending Right to Know requests that dealt with judges or other members of the county court systems.

The order also stipulated that the county should forward these requests and any copies to the Centre County Court Administrator, who would decide whether to fill the requests.

Witold Walczak, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, says his organization wasted no time jumping in. He says the watchdog organization threatened to file a federal lawsuit challenging the order’s validity if it wasn’t repealed.

“The order prohibits the use of public records on matters of public concern,” Walczak says. “It’s a form of censorship.”

A lawyer representing Centre County – Mary Lou Maierhofer of the Margolis Edelstein law firm – also attacked the order through a court filing last Wednesday, claiming it “violates Federal and State laws as well as poses possible ethical violations.”

Maierhofer wrote that Kistler’s order was “overly broad” and could potentially and unjustly limit a county resident’s ability to request information about the judiciary. Even though courts are typically subject to fewer Right to Know requests than other kinds of government offices, Maierhofer argued that Kistler’s order would eliminate the county’s ability to produce financial records and other public information.

She also said that the county has a responsibility to keep a complete record of all RTK requests received. By forcing the county to forward all copies of all requests that relate to the courts to the court administrator, Maierhofer wrote that the order violates the county’s requirement to keep complete records. 

She asked for the court to issue a stay of Kistler’s order, which was granted on Thursday by Huntingdon County Senior Judge Stewart Kurtz. The order granting the stay does not explain the reasoning behind Kurtz’s decision. 

“The order is only stayed; it’s not withdrawn or repealed,” Walczak says. “So long as it doesn’t go into effect again, there will be no need for action.”

But the story doesn’t end there. The now-defunct administrative order is related to an ongoing lawsuit filed by two Centre County judges against the county itself. 

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

Grine says in an email that the county filled a Right to Know request that provided his phone number and phone records to a member of the public. He says this oversteps the boundaries of the Right to Know law, which does not allow for the release of a judge’s personal information.

“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. “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.”

In several criminal cases over the past several months, local defense attorneys have used records of text messages between judges and prosecuters to allege bias and preferential treatment. It is unclear if Grine’s records were used for this purpose, but the lawsuit does list the law firm of State College defense attorneys Andrew Shubin and Sean McGraw as a defendant.

McGraw deferred comment to the ACLU-PA, who is representing the Shubin-McGraw firm in the pending litigation.

Walczak says Grine “has a good point by saying [his] phone number shouldn’t be released publicly” – but questions whether the phone number was ever distributed to the public. Walczak also says it’s “unusual” for a judge to file a lawsuit that he claims raises first amendment concerns. The ACLU-PA plans to file in the Centre County Court of Common Pleas later this week, Walczak says.

Centre County Solicitor Louis Glantz says the county government pays for the judges' phones in question, which is why the county considered the phone records to be county financial records.

A hearing in the lawsuit was scheduled for Monday morning, but has been pushed back until April 2.

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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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