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Stage is Set for Courtroom Showdown With Centre County Officials Fighting Each Other

by on April 02, 2015 6:00 AM

The Centre County government and judicial systems have been plagued by conflict for months, but a court hearing on Thursday morning will be the first face-to-face confrontation to come out of the various legal battles that are pitting county officials against each other. 

Thursday's hearing will deal with two separate but interrelated lawsuits filed by two judges against the Centre County government.

Common Pleas Judge Jonathan Grine and Magisterial District Judge Kelly Gillette-Walker are both suing the county for allegedly violating their privacy and breaking Pennsylvania's Right to Know law. Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller has also filed a third lawsuit against the county that makes similar allegations, but that suit will will not be addressed on Thursday.

The three lawsuits stem from several criminal cases in recent months in which defense attorneys used records of text messages between judges and prosecutors (obtained through the county through Right to Know requests) to allege bias and preferential treatment in favor of the DA's office.

Parks Miller has denied the allegations of bias, calling them "without merit." Judge Bradley Lunsford, one the judges accused of bias, declined comment when contacted by StateCollege.com and explained that judges can not make public statements about court proceedings.

Gillette-Walker and Grine both filed their lawsuits on March 16, and both suits name the county as a defendant. Grine's suit also takes aim at attorney Theodore Tanski and his employer, the Harrisburg-based McShane Law Firm. Gillette-Walker's suit names local attorney Sean McGraw and the Shubin Law Office as additional defendants.

Both suits were originally filed under seal, but the judges later asked the court to unseal the documents. In their motions to unseal, the judges said that the Centre County Commissioners openly discussed the sealed lawsuits in a public meeting, giving "the public...incomplete information about the nature of the case."

Some of the judges' concerns deal with language in Pennsylvania's Right to Know law that prevents the release of "all or part" of a person's telephone number. The records received by the defense attorneys (some of which were later filed in public court documents) include lists of partial telephone numbers for judges and prosecutors. None of the records give any details about the contents of the text messages, and only list the times they were sent and received.

Part of the judges' concerns also deal with the county's authority to release the records. Both suits argue that the court's Right to Know officer should have reviewed and responded to the requests instead of the county's Right to Know officer. The lawsuits also point out that many court records (except financial records) are not subject to Right to Know requests because of the sensitive nature of judicial work.

Centre County Solicitor Louis Glantz has previously told StateCollege.com the county released the records because they involve county-provided phones for county employees, making them public financial records -- but the other parties disagree. Parks Miller claims her phone was bought with funds seized from convicted criminals, so the county had no financial stake in her phone records. Grine has also told StateCollege.com that "phone numbers and call logs are not financial records."

Grine and Gillette-Walker both ask the court to declare the county was wrong to release the records and to prevent similar releases in the future. Both judges also ask that attorneys in possession of the records destroy any copies of any information they received, which has prompted accusations of First Amendment violations.

A filing from attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania (who are helping represent McGraw and the Shubin law firm) accuse the judges of attempting to place a "prior restraint" on their client's right to free speech. Attorneys for Tanski and the McShane firm make similar arguments. Both defendants also argue that, even if the county was wrong to release the records, the attorneys did nothing wrong by requesting them.

The judges' lawsuits were filed only days before Centre County President Judge Thomas Kistler signed an order that limited Right to Know requests in Centre County and may have prevented citizens from obtaining information from the judiciary. Kistler said his order was an attempt to reach a temporary agreement between the various parties involved in this case, but he later rescinded the order after it was stayed by another judge.

Parks Miller and Assistant District Attorney Mark Smith were subpoenaed by the county to testify on Thursday, but filed motions asking the court to quash the subpoenas. They argued the county had not sufficiently explained why their presence or testimony was required, especially in light of their duties at the courthouse. Attorneys for the county opposed the motion, but the court did not respond to the request by the end of the day on Wednesday.

Parks Miller has had a number of unrelated disputes with the county government in recent months. After allegations surfaced in January that she forged a judge's signature on a fake court order, Parks Miller has denied the allegations and argued she was subjected to an illegal and politically-motivated investigation involving the Centre County Commissioners and the Bellefonte police department. The Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General has since taken over the investigation into the forgery allegations.

 

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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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