Judge rules law firms can use documents; county was wrong to release them under Right-to-Know Law

About a month after an all-day hearing in Bellefonte, a judge has made a ruling on the Right-to-Know Law in lawsuits brought against the county by two members of its judiciary.

The order handed down by Huntingdon County Senior Judge Stewart L. Kurtz Thursday favored the position of Common Pleas Judge Jonathan Grine and District Judge Kelley Gillette-Walker. The two argued that county government violated the law and also their rights to privacy when they released phone records to defense attorneys for use in legal filings in response to Right-to-Know requests filed by the lawyers.

Kurtz ordered that the county be prohibited from responding to any Right-to-Know requests involving judicial records and ordered that any future requests be directed to either the prothonotary for Common Pleas requests or to the district court administrator for requests involving district judges.

“This summary of the Right-to-Know Law points to the conclusion that the Centre County Administrator had no authority to respond to the requests made since the records sought were judicial and not public in nature,” Kurtz wrote in the filing.

Kurtz also cited the separation of powers protected by the Pennsylvania Constitution as a reason for the ruling, as “it is the exclusive province of the judiciary to manage its affairs without interference from other branches of government,” he wrote.

The county maintained that it had to release the records under the law because they were financial records pulled from itemized Verizon phone bills.

County Administrator Tim Boyde said Thursday afternoon that he and county officials had not been able to look over the order enough to offer comment, but they will be reviewing it with attorneys.

In the Grine lawsuit, injunctive action against attorney Theodore Tanski, an attorney with the Harrisburg-based McShane Firm, was also considered. The county gave Tanski records of communication between Grine, Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller, former Assistant District Attorney Nathan Boob and Judge Bradley P. Lunsford in response to a Right-to-Know request.

Grine asked that the the firm be ordered to destroy the records released to them by the county and a March injunction prevented Tanski from using the records in court. Kurtz ordered that injunction vacated Wednesday, freeing the Harrisburg attorneys to keep and use the records because ordering them destroyed would violate the First Amendment.

Justin McShane, owner of the firm, said he is pleased with the order denying injunctive action against Tanski and his firm but plans on countersuing Grine using the state Dragonetti Act, a law that enables a defendant to file suit against a plaintiff for wrongful use of civil proceedings.

The action suppressed free speech for weeks, McShane said, and he and his staff spent a lot of hours preparing and working on arguments and filings in the suit, which McShane described as “frivolous.”

“Within a matter of days, we guarantee that we will be filing a lawsuit against Judge Grine for his un-American activities,” McShane said.

Grine said he was pleased with the order and said he was fine with the First Amendment ruling that allowed Tanski to keep the documents because he got to testify to their contents at the hearing. He said he hopes he and the county can work the rest of the suit out and move forward.

“I feel vindicated and satisfied with the judge’s opinion,” Grine said. “If Mr. McShane decides to file any further action against me, I will review it and respond accordingly.”

Gillette-Walker, whose suit also named State College attorney Sean McGraw — both former colleagues in Parks Miller’s office — and the law office he works for in the suit.

Gillette-Walker said she was pleased with the ruling and that the county would have to “follow the Right-to-Know Law as it is written and Constitution as it is written.”

“Those were the big things that I was concerned about, that the Constitution and the law wasn’t being followed,” she said.

Gillette-Walker also wanted the court to order McGraw to destroy copies of the records he received from the county, but injunctive action was abandoned against McGraw before the hearing.

McGraw also expressed pleasure, but at the free speech implications of the order.

“I’m pleased that Judge Kurtz recognized the central importance of the First Amendment in ensuring the integrity of the court system,” McGraw said.

McGraw is also a co-defendant in the lawsuit filed by Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller. Her suit is similar to those of the two jurists and also alleges that the county illegally produced her phone records under the Right-to-Know Law. A hearing in that case also before Kurtz is scheduled for Wednesday in the Courthouse Annex.

The Thursday order could have implications in that case as well, Bruce Castor Jr., Parks Miller’s attorney said. He is going to ask the judge to apply the same logic to the Right-to-Know portion of that suit, and advance the same arguments used by Grine and Gillette-Walker. Now that a ruling has been handed down, Castor said he doesn’t foresee a lengthy hearing next week.

“It never was a close call and I think Judge Kurtz hit the nail on the head,” Castor said.