When Judge Stewart Kurtz began a hearing for two lawsuits brought by Centre County judges against the county, Kurtz said he’d hoped the parties could resolve their dispute without a court hearing.
Instead, he listened to nearly seven solid hours of testimony about a series of interlocking questions: did the Centre County government violate the privacy of county judges Jonathan Grine or Kelly Gillette-Walker?
Did the county break Pennsylvania’s Right to Know law when it released some of the judge's cell phone records to defense attorneys?
How does the First Amendment play into all of this?
And at the end of the daylong hearing some issues were resolved, but most of the questions remain unanswered for the time being.
Grine and Gillette-Walker filed suit against the county last month. They allege the county broke the law and violated their privacy by providing their cell phone records to attorneys in response to Right to Know requests. Some attorneys have used the records of phone calls and texts between judges and prosecutors to allege bias and preferential treatment in favor of Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller and her office.
An emergency injunction is temporarily in effect, preventing further release of those records until Judge Stewart – a Huntingdon County judge who is specially presiding over the lawsuits – is able to rule one way or the other.
The defense attorneys in question – members of the State College-based Shubin Law Firm and Harrisburg-based McShane Firm – are also being sued. Early on in the day, an injunction against the Shubin firm was lifted (presumably because the records it received have already been filed in a public court document), but the firm wasn’t lucky enough to be dismissed from the suit entirely. The injunction against the other parties also remains in effect.
Grine and Gillette-Walker were first to take the stand, and both expressed similar concerns. They testified they weren’t notified when the county received Right to Know requests asking for copies of their phone records and emails, nor were they notified when the county provided the phone records. They said this prevented them from objecting to the release.
Both judges also said that they either paid for their own cell phones or reimbursed the county for their phones, meaning the county had no financial stake in the records. They also noted that the Right to Know law specifically prohibits the release of telephone numbers, and that parts of their cell phone numbers were included in the documents the county released.
“I didn’t file this lawsuit to attack anyone,” Grine said. “I like all the attorneys and the commissioners here; this isn’t personal. I have a question of law that I believe needs to be answered.”
Centre County Administrator Tim Boyde tried to explain the county’s reasoning when he took the stand: The county has an obligation to fulfill requests it receives for public information. Since the attorneys requested records of phone contact between county employees on county-funded phones, he said the records were considered public financial records that should be released.
Boyde said he and Centre County Solicitor Louis Galntz contacted President Judge Thomas Kistler when they first started getting requests that involved judges. Boyde said Kistler recommended speaking to an attorney with Right to Know expertise. Boyde also said that Kistler implied it would be appropriate to release the records – but Kistler’s own testimony, which he gave before Boyde's, painted a different picture for the court.
Kistler confirmed that he suggested the county seek legal counsel, but said he voiced neither support nor opposition for the release of any documents. Kistler claimed that he “removed [himself] from the decision-making process” as early as November of last year in an attempt to “ease tensions in the courts.”
When attorneys for Grine and Gillette-Walker questioned Boyde about these two different stories, Boyde doubled down on his testimony. Kistler had left the hearing by that point to return to his duties as a judge, and didn’t get the chance to address the differing account.
“I swore an oath to tell the truth here,” Boyde said. “And that’s what I’m doing.”
By the time District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller took the stand, the hearing had dragged on for hours. Up until that point, all testimony had been given in even voices, but Parks Miller and Mary Lou Maierhofer (the attorney representing Centre County) did not get along.
The two women seemed to grow frustrated, even angry, as Parks Miller gave her testimony, with Maierhofer repeatedly forcing Parks Miller to boil down long answers into either a “yes” or a “no.” Judge Kurtz intervened several times, sometimes to tell Parks Miller to answer a question, and sometimes to tell Maierhofer to let Parks Miller finish answering.
Parks Miller testified that she was also not notified that any requests involving her phone records had been filed, and that she was not given an opportunity to object. She was also particularly bothered by the fact that Boyde and the commissioners reportedly “trawled through” her professional email account.
She said that her emails contain sensitive information about ongoing investigations and undercover police operatives – information that she felt could have been harmful if seen by the wrong eyes. Maierhofer countered by pointing out that no emails had been released.
For the Shubin and McShane firms, Thursday’s hearing was also one about constitutional rights. Attorneys representing both firms argued that Judges Grine and Gillette-Walker were attempting to violate their clients’ free speech rights by trying to keep the firms from releasing lawfully obtained records.
As the hearing wrapped up, Judge Kurtz admitted he’d had very little time to read the most recent filings in the case, some of which were only submitted to the court on Wednesday. He granted the plaintiffs ten days to respond to the newest documents from the defendants, and did not suggest when he might make a ruling on any of the issues discussed Thursday.
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