"What's black and white and read all over?"

Thursday, March 02, 2006
Posted 9:01 PM by

Mixed bag

Without issuing a formal opinion, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday that 35 counties change vote collecting systems without asking voters as required by the state constitution.Pennsylvania's courts offered a mix of rulings and decision this week that may directly affect many state residents.

First off, the high court ruled Thursday that Westmoreland County - and 34 other counties - may replace its mechanical lever voting machines without voter approval in a case that pitted new federal election laws against the state constitution.

But in true Pennsylvania fashion, the justices decided not to justify their decision with an actual opinion. Instead, the ruling, which overturned a lower court, was announced in a one-page order that promised an opinion later explaining the reasoning - assuming of course they can conjure one up that makes sense.

The counties must meet new federal election standards by the upcoming primary or the state and counties risk losing part of nearly $135 million in federal funds.

Should arrest records be posted on the Internet even before a suspect is found guilty?Meanwhile, the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, which oversees the state and county court system, took input today on a new policy that may change what residents can read about court cases on the Internet.

As a journalist, I am in favor of posting everything on the Web, for good or ill. If it's a public record it should be available for public consumption, period, not hidden away until a case is decided.

But Larry Frankel, the Pennsylvania legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union, was among several people who argued that criminal case records should not be on the Internet before a defendant is adjudicated guilty. Frankel said many people wrongly consider an arrest equivalent to a conviction.

"We think that excluding such information will greatly enhance the privacy rights of all Pennsylvanians," Frankel said.

Alan M. Feldman, chancellor for the Philadelphia Bar Association, agreed saying posting information about someone who has not been found guilty could unfairly tarnish their reputation.

But Pennsylvania Newspaper Association lawyer Teri Henning argued, "The fact that someone has been charged with a crime is significant. It is also public information."

Sheriffs and their deputies are not law enforcement officers and cannot conduct wiretapping, the state's Supreme Court ruled this week.Finally, on Tuesday, the Supremes ruled sheriffs' deputies are not law enforcement officers as defined by state law and therefore can not engage in electronic eavesdropping.

Justice Sandra Schultz Newman's majority opinion found sheriffs and deputies do not have more power than private citizens to make arrests for crimes they witness.

Considering many deputies are political appointees here, and Pennsylvania is one of the leading states in abusing criminal records for private and political purposes, this ruling makes a lot of sense.
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