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Posted by on Nov 23, 2017 in Civil, Right to Know | 0 comments

Miller v. County of Centre: District Attorneys are not “Judicial Agencies” exempt from Right to Know disclosure requirements

Right to Know (RTK) requests by several defense attorneys in Centre County (home of Mount Nittany) revealed communications between DA Stacy Parks Miller and judges on CCP and MDC, which the defense attorneys used to demonstrate ex parte communications in various cases. The County handed over all documents requested without consulting with Parks Miller or the judicial staffs. Parks Miller sued for an injunction prohibiting future disclosures on the basis that she is not subject to the general disclosure requirements of the Right to Know Law (RTKL) because she is part of a “judicial agency” as defined in the statute.

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled in Miller v. County of Centre that DAs are not “judicial agencies” for purposes of the RTKL, and are subject to the general disclosure of requested documents unless they can show another valid privilege or exemption.

Majority by Wecht: Plain text of RTKL includes DAs in disclosure requirements

Justice Wecht, writing for the 5 members of the unanimous Court, says that an “examination of the RTKL, the definitional section of the Judicial Code, 42 Pa.C.S. § 102, and the definitions provided in our Rules of Judicial Administration, demonstrate that a district attorney’s office is not a ‘judicial agency’ for purposes of the RTKL,” and thus, is subject to the general disclosure rules of the statute.

Determining how the DAs of Pennsylvania are classified is a crucial step in the fight over disclosure of their records. This is because there is a presumption that “All records in the possession of Commonwealth and local agencies are presumed to be public records subject to disclosure” unless a specific exemption, privilege or statute can be shown to exempt them. The common law right to access public documents that precedes Pennsylvania’s first RTK statute. The public policy of Pennsylvania strongly supports disclosure of government documents upon request of private parties.

However, this broad duty to disclose does not apply to “judicial agencies” under the RTKL. The DA’s argument “relies entirely upon the facially curious inclusion of district attorneys within the definition of ‘system and related personnel’ set forth in the Judicial Code and the Rules of Judicial Administration.” But a quick review of the Judicial Code and the RTKL reveals that DAs are defined as “related staff,” and not “personnel of the system.” Thus, they are not shielded as “judicial agencies” under the RTKL.

This reading is consistent with the objective of the RTKL, which “‘is to empower citizens by affording them access to information concerning the activities of their government,’ to promote openness to official government information in order to prohibit secrets, scrutinize the actions of public officials, and to make public officials accountable for their actions.” The RTKL and its predecessor, RTKA were designed to increase accountability for unelected agencies, and to ensure the public’s right to access information remains unfettered by red tape.

Concurrence by Donohue: We’re borrowing definitions from other statutes

Justice Donohue, joined by Justice Dougherty, concurs in the result that DAs are not judicial agencies, but chides the majority for borrowing too liberally from the judicial code in making its determination in the present case. The definitions of the respective statutes “are intended to apply only to the defined terms contained in those statutes and rules.”

Conclusion: So…about those ex parte communications…

Perhaps I’m just amped up from reading about judges being dismissed over ex parte communications, but I’m extremely curious to know more about the underlying facts in this case. The Court makes no comment on the scandalous allegations—and perhaps because they’re either pending as formal charges, or because the charges went nowhere already—but I can’t contain my own curiosity as to the nature of these communications and the results of them.

Our Supreme Court continues to chart a bold and broad reading of the RTK’s disclosure requirements—consistent, I believe, with the text and purpose of the RTKL. In PSP v. Grove, decided earlier this year, the Court did not shy away from making the State Police offer up their motor vehicle recordings in a broad ruling; now the Court makes clear that DAs are required to give up information upon request, as well.

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