Appeals court reverses Centre County Right-to-Know ruling

An appeals court has overturned a ruling on what documents regarding the office of Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller can be released under Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law.
An appeals court has overturned a ruling on what documents regarding the office of Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller can be released under Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law. Centre Daily Times, file

An appeals court has overturned a Centre County ruling on just what documents regarding the district attorney’s office can be released under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law.

The ruling came down Tuesday when Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson wrote an opinion and signed an order reversing two Centre County Court of Common Pleas orders.

Those orders were actually signed by Huntingdon County Senior Judge Stewart Kurtz, specially presiding in the case because of how it overlapped with courthouse business.

In May 2015, Kurtz ruled that Centre County officials were in the wrong when they answered an RTKL request for information about phone records between the DA’s office and some judges, including Judge Jonathan Grine and District Judge Kelley Gillette-Walker. The records in question showed only times and dates of phone calls, information available to the county as the holder of the Verizon Wireless account.

The request came as part of an issue that pitted DA Stacy Parks Miller against a number of defense attorneys, the county commissioners and others in a year where the courthouse became a battlefield between the various offices. A related civil case brought by the DA continues in federal court.

Parks Miller’s position was that her office should receive protections from such RTKL requests, as afforded to judicial offices. The county’s appeal stressed the office was not judicial.

“Employees and elected officials of the DA’s office are not ‘judicial employees’ or court-supervised personnel,” Simpson wrote in his ruling, siding with the county.

“Indeed, as district attorneys are a prosecutorial arm of the government, court supervision of prosecution could raise separation of powers questions,” he wrote. “Additionally, judicial power is not vested in the DA’s office.”

The second order reversed prevented the county from responding to any requests for correspondence related to Parks Miller. Simpson found an error in the granting of the order, but cautioned the county to use discretion in releasing any requested documents, recognizing that many communications might fall under critical information protected by state law.

While the ruling seems like a win for the county, Parks Miller’s attorney, Bruce Castor, was not concerned about the reversal.

“The court recognized that the law prevents the county from looking into the district attorney’s confidential records, and requires it to consult with the DA about her records in the future. So the DA is pleased generally with the opinion especially the part about criminal investigative records,” he said in an email. “(She) was shocked the way the last county administration acted recklessly without regard to victim’s identities, witness information, undercover police officers and the like. The voters took care of most of that problem last November, and this court ruling simply added an exclamation point.”

Castor’s comments refer to a change in the makeup of the board of commissioners in January when Republican Chris Exarchos left office, with Democrat Mark Higgins taking his place and tipping the balance of power on the board.

“We have no reason to think the current county administration will fail to take the court’s warning to heart. The relationship between the county and the district attorney is already much improved, which the DA welcomes. Justice continues to get done in Centre County,” Castor said.

The county’s attorney countered that the ruling was about her client’s issues.

“This is not a win for the DA. The Commonwealth Court found that all of her arguments regarding why she was part of the judiciary were wrong and the county reasons as to why she was not part of the judiciary were correct. While the Commonwealth Court did not make a finding on what the documents were (i.e. financial or not), they indicated that would be determined in the judiciary cases,” said Mary Lou Maierhofer.

Grine and Gillette-Walker have also filed suit against the county.