Centre County Right-to-Know order stayed; ACLU lawyers to represent local attorneys

An order signed by Centre County President Judge Thomas King Kistler on March 16 regarding Right-to-Know Law requests has been stayed by a visiting judge also handling two lawsuits filed against the county by other county judges.

Kistler’s order last week stated that, among other provisions, Right-to-Know requests involving the county judicial system received by county Administrator Tim Boyde and solicitor Louis Glantz should be denied and instead forwarded to the court administrator, and that Boyde and the county commissioners should keep communications records involving the courts confidential.

An order signed by Senior Judge Stewart L. Kurtz, of Huntingdon County, on Thursday relieved the county of its responsibilities under that order. Kurtz’s order came a day after an attorney hired by the county, Mary Lou Maierhofer, asked for a stay on behalf of the county because, she argued, the order violated state and federal laws.

Despite the stay, Glantz said the county would still be unable to release records or process pending and new requests regarding the judiciary because of lawsuits filed against the county by Centre County Common Pleas Judge Jonathan D. Grine and District Judge Kelley Gillette-Walker.

Last week, the judges sought injunctive relief against Right-To-Know requests to prevent the county from releasing records involving the judiciary.

The law office of Andrew Shubin and one of its attorneys, Sean McGraw, are listed as co-defendants in the Gillette-Walker case. McGraw and the firm will be represented in the case by Ronald Barber, a Pittsburgh-based attorney who specializes in media and First Amendment law, and Witold Walczak, legal director of the state American Civil Liberties Union.

Walczak said he got involved in the case because the seal placed on the cases at the request of Grine and Gillette-Walker raises First Amendment concerns. Courts need to operate in the open, and he saw no basis to have the cases sealed, he said.

“Just because judges, as litigants, file it, it does not give them special dispensation from the Constitiution,” Walczak said.

Walczak said a response will be filed later in the week.

He added that he was happy to see the administrative order stayed. The ACLU was preparing to file a federal lawsuit against that order on the grounds that it caused an overbroad restriction on the public’s First Amendment right to access government information, Walczak said.

McGraw filed a motion earlier this month in which he argued that communications between members of the Centre County District Attorney’s Office and Gillette-Walker and Judge Bradley P. Lunsford presented the appearance of bias against one of his clients, Justin Blake.

The motion cited and included phone records obtained by Right-to-Know requests filed through the county. Some requests, including one on text messaging between Gillette-Walker and Parks Miller around the time of Blake’s preliminary hearing, were still pending at the time of the filing, McGraw wrote in the filing.

A hearing on the injunctions scheduled for Monday has been continued until 9 a.m. April 2, according to court documents. More details could soon follow. Grine and Gillette-Walker filed motions to unseal both cases Thursday, according to court documents.

Last week, Gillette-Walker referred questions to her attorneys, Kathleen Bruder and Kimberly Colonna, of McNees, Wallace & Nurick, of Harrisburg, who also represent Grine. Bruder said Gillette-Walker was interested in protecting her records under the Right-to-Know act and the integrity of the court.

Grine also spoke to protecting the integrity and independence of the courts, adding that under the Right-to-Know Law and case law, judicial records, with the exception of financial records, are not subject to disclosure.

“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,” Grine said in an email last week.