The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agrees: District attorneys are not a special case when it comes to the state’s Right-to-Know law.
The decision came Tuesday in response to a case brought to Centre County DA Stacy Parks Miller.
It all started with the texting controversy that started in 2014 and went public in 2015. A number of defense lawyers — including Bernie Cantorna, who will become the new DA in January — used Right-to-Know requests to solicit records of communications between the DA’s office and judges.
Those communications, including texts, they said, constituted ex parte contact. That means a communication where one side of a case is excluded.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The county complied with the request, turning over billing information from Verizon and “color-coded spreadsheets that tracked usage between the judges and Parks Miller’s office, including the time, date, length of call and type of communication (call or text),” according to court records. Emails were also produced without the DA’s knowledge.
Judge Jonathan Grine and District Judge Kelley Gillette-Walker both filed suit over the disclosure and received preliminary injunctions on the release of judicial records. The Commonwealth Court upheld that decision on appeal and the Supreme Court didn’t pick up an appeal of the lower court’s decision.
But when Parks Miller claimed protection as a judicial agency, the Commonwealth Court said no. Seven justices of the Supreme Court agreed, in two separate opinions.
Justice David Wecht wrote the majority opinion, going to simple definitions of the office as being “related staff” rather than actual judicial agencies, just like others — including sheriffs and public defenders — that work around the court but not as judicial staff.
Justice Christine Donohue agreed with the decision, but was more critical about the path taken to get there.
“I reject out-of-hand Parks Miller’s notion that district attorneys and the judiciary are on the same ‘team,’ ” she wrote.
Donohue said the idea “dangerously conflates” the people prosecuting cases with those judging them impartially.
“Parks Miller’s highly generalized view of the unified judicial system misconstrues the role of district attorneys in our constitutional system,” she wrote.
Donohue also said the idea would make district attorneys more protected than the state’s attorney general, who is recognized as a member of the executive branch rather than the judiciary, calling the idea “absurd and unreasonable.”
The court decided to take up the case in October 2016. At the time, Parks Miller’s attorney was “very encouraged” by the move, and thought that it would bode well for the appeal of her federal defamation case against the county and several officials, the lawyers and her former paralegal.
The Third Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed that case against 12 of the 13 defendants in August, calling most of the claims “untenable.”
“Attorney Craig Staudenmaier and I are very pleased that the court accepted the county’s arguments,” said Centre County’s attorney, Mary Lou Maierhofer. “Between the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreeing with the county’s actions in releasing the district attorney’s records and the dismissal of Stacy Parks Miller’s federal litigation filed against the various representatives of the county and the county, the county’s actions have been vindicated.”
Parks Miller was scheduled to have a disciplinary hearing in Harrisburg on Nov. 29, but a joint motion for continuance in that case was granted Nov. 6. A new date is not listed on the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania’s website.