The Thursday hearing on lawsuits filed by two judges against Centre County essentially boiled down to two questions: whether phone records of county judges are in fact financial records and whether the county legally released those records in response to Right-to-Know requests.
After hearing testimony and what he called “very strong arguments” all day, Huntingdon County Senior Judge Stewart L. Kurtz did not rule either way.
Centre County Common Pleas Judge Jonathan Grine and District Judge Kelley Gillette-Walker filed suit against the county last month. They maintain that the records violate the state Right-to-Know law and their privacy rights.
Their attorneys, Kathleen Bruder and Kimberly Colonna, argued Thursday that the county illegally released the records because information including whole or partial phone numbers is exempt from release, and only financial records of the courts are subject to disclosure under the law. The judges also expressed safety concerns for themselves and their families regarding the release of the numbers.
The county position is that it was obligated to respond to the requests under the law because the records are financial and the county acted accordingly.
Mary Lou Maierhofer, counsel representing Centre County, said the records were financial and were taken from itemized Verizon phone bills for county-funded cellphones and had to provide them under the law. The county asked that the court lift an injunction preventing processing of pending Right-to-Know requests.
Several Centre County elected and public officials testified, beginning with Grine and Gillette-Walker. Both expressed concerns that because the content of the communications is not included in the records, it would lead to speculation about the context of the communications.
Grine’s case centers on a Right-to-Know request filed by T.C. Tanski, an attorney who specializes in appellate and post-conviction cases. Tanski works for the McShane Firm, a Harrisburg law group.
The records released to Tanski have not yet been used in any legal filings, but involved calls and texts between Grine, District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller, Assistant District Attorney Nathan Boob and Judge Bradley P. Lunsford.
Tanski declined to comment on what case the request involved.
Grine said the communications could have been for any number of reasons and provided some examples. He was working with other judges and the District Attorney’s Office on a supervised bail program around that time and he often gets calls or texts about sealed search warrants. He said he also contacts prosecutors and defense attorneys to let them know to return to court when a jury has reached a verdict or has a question.
He said he called Parks Miller once about a personal issue during that time. He said he considers Parks Miller a friend, but feels likewise about many members of the defense bar, including State College lawyers Andrew Shubin and Sean McGraw, co-defendants in Gillette-Walker’s suit. He denied that he ever used such relationships to discuss court business or matters outside of the courthouse.
“I filed this lawsuit, not to attack anyone, but to argue a point of law on the Right-to-Know law,” Grine said. “I personally like all the attorneys in this room and I like the commissioners.”
The requests regarding Gillette-Walker were filed by McGraw regarding the case of one of his clients, Justin Blake. McGraw used the records in a filing that alleged that communications between prosecutors and judges, including Gillette-Walker, created the appearance of bias against Blake.
The records released by the county were taken from Parks Miller’s phone bill and indicated two phone calls between them the day of Blake’s preliminary hearing, one at about noon and another that evening.
Gillette-Walker said that by the time she got the first call, the case was out of her jurisdiction. During her testimony, Colonna entered a bail document as evidence that the morning phone call came about 90 minutes after she had ruled on Blake’s hearing.
Gillette-Walker also spoke to the content of the calls. She had hurt her ankle and was limping that day. The call she received from Parks Miller that morning was only a minute long and was a voicemail inquiring about the injury. The call to the district attorney that night was to tell Parks Miller the ankle was broken, she said.
Gillette-Walker said she knows Parks Miller socially, but has similar relationships with members of the civil and defense bar. She also denied ever discussing court business outside of court.
Other testimony outlined the process for how the county had released the records. County Administrator Tim Boyde said he received the first request involving judicial communications from attorney Bernard Cantorna in October.
President Judge Thomas King Kistler testified that he received an email from Boyde in November seeking guidance on how to proceed with the requests. Kistler said he recused himself because it involved colleagues and recommended the county seek counsel for guidance.
Boyde said the county produced the records, with the last four digits of the phone numbers redacted, after consultation with an attorney specializing in the Right-to-Know law.
In her testimony, Parks Miller attacked the process the county used when releasing the records and said the release of the numbers could compromise criminal investigations. She received the Right-to-Know requests and had intended to answer them. She had been in conversations with the county about the requests, but the county released the information without her knowledge, she said.
Parks Miller filed a similar suit against the county a week after the judges. Shubin, McGraw, Cantorna and five “John Does” are listed as co-defendants in the suit. Her attorney, Bruce Castor, was present Thursday and said a hearing in that suit has not yet been scheduled. Kurtz will hear that case as well.
One decision was made Thursday.
Colonna asked the judge to lift the emergency injunction against McGraw and Shubin, which Kurtz granted. The attorneys are still party to the lawsuit. Their attorney, Witold Walczak, said he was pleased the injunction had been lifted and said the case is of public significance.
“Having this information might make a district attorney or judge explain the communication, and that’s certainly of public interest,” he said.
Walczak, legal director for the state ACLU, has previously brought up First Amendment concerns in the cases. Attorneys for Tanski addressed similar concerns at the hearing. Kurtz gave counsel for the judges 10 days to respond to the First Amendment arguments.
“Both our clients are pleased they had the chance to present their case, both in court and to the public,” Bruder said, but declined to comment further.