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Order Restricting Right to Know Requests Lifted

by on March 25, 2015 6:00 AM

An administrative order that may have limited the information Centre County residents can request from their government has been lifted.

On Tuesday Centre County President Judge Thomas Kistler rescinded an administrative order he signed on March 19. The now-defunct order required the county government to deny any pending Right to Know requests that deal 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. Kistler said in an email that the order came out of a meeting that included input from representatives from the county courts, the county government and the state judiciary.

The decision to repeal the order comes at time when the county’s handling of Right to Know requests has come under intense scrutiny. Centre County Common Pleas Judge Jonathan Grine, Magisterial District Judge Kelley Gillette-Walker and District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller are each suing the county for alleged violations of the Right to Know law and invasions of privacy.

Their lawsuits stem from the fact that several defense attorneys have used records of text messages between judges and prosecutors (obtained through Right to Know requests) to allege bias and preferential treatment in favor of the DA’s office. None of the records obtained speak to the contents of the messages, and only list the times they were sent and received.

Centre County Commissioner Louis Glantz has told StateCollege.com that the county released those records because they involved county employees and records of county-provided phones – making them public financial records. Grine and Parks Miller disagree.

“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 wrote in an email last week. “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.”

Bruce Castor, an attorney for Parks Miller, has also told StateCollege.com that Parks Miller’s cell phone was paid for by the district attorney’s office through funds confiscated from criminals – meaning the county had no right to release the records.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania took issue with the administrative order before Kistler repealed it. Witold Walczak, the ACLU-PA legal director, told StateCollege.com that his organization was considering challenging the order in federal court.

However, Huntingdon County Senior Judge Stewart Kurtz – who is overseeing Grine's and Gillette-Walker's lawsuits – signed an order that temporarily stayed the administrative order only one day before Kistler rescinded it himself.

“It’s the right move,” Walczak says. “The order never should have been signed in the first place.”

Kistler says the order was an attempt to reach an agreement between each of the involved parties. He had no conversation with ACLU-PA representatives, and says that organization did not influence his decision to rescind the order.

Grine deferred comment to his lawyer, who did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Gillette-Walker has previously declined comment when contacted by StateCollege.com.

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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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