Huntingdon County jurist defends rulings in Centre County Right to Know cases

The out-of-county judge hearing lawsuits brought against Centre County government regarding Right-to-Know requests responded to county attorneys appealing an order handed down last month that prohibits county officials from responding to requests involving the judiciary.

In the Friday filing, Huntingdon County Senior Judge Stewart L. Kurtz wrote that he is satisfied that a May order granting a preliminary injunction in suits filed by Court of Common Pleas Judge Jonathan D. Grine and District Judge Kelley Gillette-Walker largely speaks for itself.

“We add only that the specter of a non-judicial county employee giving out upon request and without notice judicial phone records strikes us as manifestly wrong,” Kurtz wrote in the memorandum.

In the May order, Kurtz ruled that county officials should not have responded to requests for cellphone records of the judges, but instead should have forwarded them to the proper official to handle — the prothonotary in the case of Grine and the county court administrator in the case of Gillette-Walker.

Kurtz ruled in the order that the responses constituted violations of the state Right-to-Know Act and the separation of powers doctrine of the state and federal constitutions.

County attorneys disagree and outlined the issues they are appealing to the state Commonwealth Court in a filing made two weeks ago.

County attorney Mary Lou Maierhofer argues that Kurtz erred when he ruled that the communications records were judicial records, but were in fact financial records privy to disclosure by the county under the Right-to-Know law because the judges’ phones were provided by the county and the judges utilized the county phone plan.

In the memorandum filed Friday, Kurtz defends his ruling, citing state law and Commonwealth Court President Judge Dan Pellegrini’s opinion in a 2010 Commonwealth Court case regarding the Right-to-Know law and emails of judicial employees in a Lackawanna County case as support.

Pellegrini wrote that “any record produced by a judicial employee is a record of a judicial agency” and that “(j)ust because the (c)ounty provides logistical support to the courts does not mean that every record stored on what the (c)ounty provides as part of its function to support the court makes it a (c)ounty record — those records always remain the records of the court.”

Kurtz issued a similar order last month in a similar lawsuit filed against the county by District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller. County government is also appealing that ruling, although Kurtz has not issued a memorandum in her case. Bruce Castor Jr., Parks Miller’s attorney, said he expects one to be filed shortly.

Castor said the rulings bode well for his client for two reasons. Because Kurtz directly cited laws and the previous ruling from the state Commonwealth Court — the appellate body county attorneys are appealing to — the injunction would be extremely difficult to overturn. The memorandum also supports Parks Miller’s argument in a contempt motion filed against county officials, he said.

Many of the parties will be in the same room for a hearing on that matter before Kurtz on July 14.

Parks Miller claims the county violated Kurtz’s order when county officials denied a Right-to-Know request from Chief Public Defender David Crowley for Judge Bradley P. Lunsford’s communication records in eight cases the judge handled. Crowley has since appealed the denial to the state Office of Open Records. A final determination by the state agency on the appeal has not yet been made, but could come anytime before July 20.

Castor argues in the contempt motion that a denial still constitutes a response and that the denial sparked an appeal to the state Office of Open Records, thus potentially pitting the office against the court. Castor also argued that the county should have forwarded Crowley’s request to Parks Miller, the Right-to-Know officer for the District Attorney’s Office, so she could respond to it.

County attorneys argue that it did nothing wrong because it didn’t release any records and forwarded them to Court Administrator Kendra Miknis, the proper official to process requests involving judges. They further contend that Parks Miller has no standing to make the contempt motion because the records requested were not hers.

The hearing is scheduled for July 14 in the third floor of the Courthouse Annex in Bellefonte.