Judges hear appeal in case weighing public’s right to know, prosecutors’ right to text

    A panel of appeals judges with the Commonwealth Court heard arguments Wednesday centering on what one judge described as the “super-charged atmosphere” in courthouses in Central Pennsylvania.

    A Centre County texting scandal in which prosecutors and judges allegedly exchanged messages in open court has created divisions between county officials and the district attorney’s office.

    After learning about the alleged texting, defense attorneys filed right-to-know requests for them, thinking that if the messages show bias, they could win new trials for some of their clients. 

    County officials pulled phone logs from Verizon and sent them to the defense attorneys. The spreadsheets contained redacted phone numbers detailing hundreds of calls and texts, but did not have the content of any texts.

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    That’s when lawsuits from all sides raised a flurry of technical legal issues. To boil it down, the district attorney’s office said the county didn’t have the authority to fulfill the public records request. The county, in response, said it does.

    A trial judge issued a preliminary injunction to stop county officials from completing public records requests involving the DA’s office after attorneys for the prosecutors argued that the county mishandled the matter. The county appealed that decision to the panel of judges in Philadelphia.

    After the hearing, Bruce L. Castor Jr., who is representing the Centre County district attorney’s office, said just because DAs and judges are texting doesn’t mean it’s nefarious, even if it’s during open court. Both sides routinely confer over matters such as sealed search warrants, wiretaps and preliminary hearings, he said.

    Releasing phone logs could get in the way of prosecutions, he argued.

    “If you were examine the DA’s telephones numbers, and find that she made calls to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, then you would know she’s going there for a wiretap. And if you’re a bad guy, you’d be worried about what you’re saying on the phone,” he said.

    A ruling from the judges is expected soon.

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