Pa. ruling widens door to obtain records from district attorney offices

Close-up, Bruce Castor

Bruce Castor (Matt Rourke/AP, file)

District attorney offices across Pennsylvania are not shielded from public records requests the same way court employees are, meaning state prosecutors cannot create blanket rules keeping emails, text messages and phone logs secret.

That’s the ruling of the Commonwealth Court, released Tuesday, which reverses a trial court decision at the core of a legal fracas in Centre County pitting prosecutors and county employees against one another.

Seeking to make records in the district attorney’s office there confidential, prosecutors argued that correspondence between judges and district attorneys is not covered by Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law. As the argument went, such exchanges are investigative material, which is not public. Plus, district attorney offices are technically “judicial agencies,” contended attorney Bruce Castor, who represented the Centre County district attorney’s office.

There is no basis for either of those arguments, wrote Judge Robert Simpson for the majority.

First, not all district attorney communication contains criminal investigative material. And secondly, employees of a district attorneys office are not judicial employees, but rather staff related to the courts.

It may sound like merely a semantic distinction, but in terms of the state’s open records laws, it’s critical. Judicial employees only have to fulfill right-to-know requests when they involve financial records. District attorney staff, meanwhile, do not have that kind of wide-reaching protection; they are obligated to disclose records unless the information sought is part of an open criminal investigation.

Advocates of open government records applauded the decision.

“What this does is bring district attorneys under the full umbrella of the law,” said Melissa Melewsky, attorney with the Pennsylvania News Media Association. “It provides clarity to other district attorneys in the commonwealth who would consider making a similar argument for denial.”

But Castor said the decision could have a troubling ripple effect for district attorney offices across Pennsylvania by potentially derailing active criminal investigations.

“The case is of enormous significance statewide, and you may see the state’s district attorneys take a stand should [Centre County] District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller seek an appeal,” Castor wrote in an email. “Because sensitive information bearing on cases, witnesses, victims, undercover police and the like could be released inadvertently.”

Castor said he is still deciding whether to appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

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