An out-of-county judge has ruled that the Centre County Government was wrong to release certain phone records of two county judges.
The county government and judiciary has been in conflict ever since Common Pleas Judge Jonathan Grine and Magisterial District Judge Kelley Gillette-Walker filed two separate but very similar lawsuits against the county in March.
The two judges alleged the county broke Pennsylvania's Right to Know Law by releasing some of their work phone records to defense attorneys in response to Right to Know requests. In turn, the county argued that the records were public county financial records it had a legal obligation to release.
An order from specially-presiding Huntingdon County Senior Judge Stewart Kurtz filed Thursday prevents the county from responding to any similar requests for records involving court employees. He says that, just because the county paid for the phones, that doesn't mean the records aren't judicial documents.
"Plaintiffs are obviously employees of the unified judicial system," Kurtz writes. "...It is the exclusive province of the judiciary to manage its affairs without interference from other branches of government."
Kurtz is not preventing the release of judicial records as whole, nor is he saying county residents can't request judicial records. Instead, the judge writes that any such requests must simply go through the proper office.
"In Centre County, the Prothonotary has been designated records manager for the Court's records, and the District Court Administrator for the records of the magisterial district judges," the order reads.
However, Kurtz doesn't give Grine everything he wanted.
Grine also filed suit against the Harrisburg-based McShane Law Firm, which had obtained his phone records through a Right to Know request. Grine wanted the court to force the McShane firm to either return or destroy the records, but Kurtz shot that request down.
Grine claimed the release of his records was a violation of his right to privacy, while McShane firm attorneys argued that being forced to destroy the records would be a violation of their right to free speech. Kurtz admits that both of these arguments have merit, but he ultimately sides with the McShane firm.
"In this case, Plaintiff is a public person [which lowers his right to privacy]; the documents were lawfully obtained; the content of the private communications is not implicated, and, contrary to Plaintiff's assertion, there is public concern about the judiciary," Kurtz writes.
However, Kurtz notes that simply issuing an injunction against Centre County does not resolve the core dispute and says that the case will still be litigated.
Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller -- who also had some of her phone records released to defense attorneys -- has also filed a lawsuit against the county. That case is scheduled for a hearing on May 13 at 9:00 a.m. in the Centre County Courthouse Annex.
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