Two judges file suit against Centre County

Centre County Commissioners Michael Pipe, Chris Exharcos and Steve Dershem.
Centre County Commissioners Michael Pipe, Chris Exharcos and Steve Dershem.

The Centre County commissioners voted Tuesday to seek special counsel in response to lawsuits filed against the county by District Judge Kelley Gillette-Walker and county Judge Jonathan D. Grine on Monday.

According to county solicitor Louis Glantz, the suits were filed shortly after an administrative order was signed by President Judge Thomas King Kistler dictating who will handle Right-to-Know Law requests regarding the county Court of Common Pleas and members of the judiciary.

The order stated that county Administrator Tim Boyde and Glantz should deny all pending or future Right-to-Know requests relating to common pleas judges, district judges or the court in general and instead direct such requests to the county court administrator.

The civil complaints filed by Gillette-Walker and Grine seek injunctive relief against Right-To-Know requests, Glantz said, seeking to keep the county from releasing any records that involve the judiciary.

The order was signed under seal, he said, meaning the complaint is not open to the public. A hearing on the suit is scheduled for 9 a.m. Monday, though he said the date could change.

Commissioners Steve Dershem, Chris Exarchos and Michael Pipe voted unanimously to begin the process of hiring counsel to defend the county in the suit.

“I think it’s very unfortunate,” Exarchos said. “I find it very disturbing that two members that work for the citizens of this county ... are suing the citizens of this county.”

To seek additional counsel in this matter will result in additional cost, he said, in addition to the attorneys hired to assist in other legal matters the county is facing.

Glantz said the county would seek to clarify some terms used by Kistler in the administrative order, saying the order went much further than what was originally agreed on during a meeting Friday.

“For example, they ask not only that we forward the request to them,” he said, “but that we delete the original files.

“We can’t do that. The originals are billing records and also public records. The county has to maintain them.”

All open-records requests would not be answered by the county office but instead be forwarded to the Right-to-Know officer at the courts, he said. For example, he said, requests for several months of Verizon billing records would either be approved or denied by the judges or court administrator.

The acting Centre County court administrator is Barbara Gallo. She also acts as the court’s Right-to-Know officer.

“The problems in the courts ... are self inflicted,” Exarchos said. “The litany of issues that have transpired in the judicial system are not the cause of anything that transpired out of this board.”

He said the court needs to “clean up their house and move on.”

Glantz said counsel would be sought in redrafting the order in a manner that’s compatible with the law. He said that, in the past, the county has worked with Harrisburg-based freedom of information attorney Craig Staudenmaier, who would likely be sought in this matter.

Staudenmaier could not be reached for comment.

“I would have never thought that I would be in a situation where I would be questioned for being forthcoming with information,” Dershem said. “These are dark days. I only wish that different circumstances existed, that we didn’t find ourselves in this position.”

Gillete-Walker directed all questions to her attorneys, Kathleen Bruder and Kimberly Colonna, of McNees, Wallace & Nurick, of Harrisburg.

Bruder said that, because the filings are sealed, Gillette-Walker won’t comment about the case, saying she’s interested in protecting her records that are protected under the Right-to-Know Law and the integrity of the court.

Bruder is also representing Grine.

Grine said in an email that he is interested in protecting the integrity and independence of the court as well as his records that are protected under the Right-to-Know Law.

“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,” he said. “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.”

According to an email by Kistler, all parties came to a unanimous agreement that requests need to be handled by the open records officer of the courts, not the county.

“Today the suggestion is made that the order was filed without either the knowledge or the consent of the Centre County commissioners,” he said. “The current order for handling Right-to-Know requests is in complete conformity with the agreement reached on Friday, and with the Right-to-Know Act.”

The Right-to-Know Law, enacted in 2008, provides access to public records and information to citizens, agencies, public officials and members of the media.