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

Wednesday, May 31, 2006
Posted 9:55 PM by

Ain't no sunshine in Pennsylvania

Not when the state Supreme Court can disregard both the state Constitution and the Legislature, render a decision that affects every Pennsylvanian and not explain why.

This is what Pennsylvania's open records access looks like from a citizen's point of view.First, the state Supreme Court pigeonholed a legislated change to the state's Open Records law for years that would have let taxpayers appeal to a district justice whenever they're denied a public record, rather than go through the expense of a county court hearing.

Now the justices have ignored the recommendations of their own committee and quietly killed the idea without any explanation.

Don't hold your breath waiting for one either.

It's been three weeks since the May 6 primary and we still don't know why all 67 counties in the state were forced to buy new electronic voting machines based on a one paragraph ruling from the high court in March, even though the state Constitution clearly required the change to be put on a referendum first.

Welcome to Pennsylvania, where justice and freedom of information are as dark and pricey as Chief Justice Ralph Cappy's robes.

This time, the gang of seven disregarded what the state Legislature wanted in 2002 when it passed H.B. 2100. The law was a revision of the state's Right-to-Know Law which would have let local magistrates, rather than Common Pleas Court judges, decide whether the records of school districts, municipalities and other non-state agencies should be deemed public records.

"The provision could have, if implemented, permitted citizens to obtain records without lengthy, costly litigation," said Pennsylvania Newspaper Association attorney Teri Henning, noting district justices can often handle cases quicker and would let people proceed without hiring a lawyer.

The change was supposed to take effect on Jan. 1, 2003, but the Supreme Court intervened and ordered its Minor Courts Rules Committee to write suggested guidelines on how the law should be implemented.

The committee, chaired by District Justice Thomas E. Martin Jr. of Chester County, did its job, proposing eight new rules and changes to two others in only a few months.

The high court, however, ignored the recommendations. And without any public announcement, the justices rendered a one-paragraph decision on May 16 that says only Common Pleas court judges should decide Right-to-Know cases.

Art Heinz, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, told the Associated Press on Tuesday that the 2002 law would have required district judges to render written opinions.

"Magisterial district judges are not courts of record," Heinz said. "In other words, they don't craft opinions, and they're not set up to handle the type of litigation that these kinds of requests generate."

Apparently the historic ouster of Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice Russell Nigro last year by voters did not have a lasting effect on the high court. They still think the dome above their heads gives them the ability to supercede the state Constitution and the Legislature."I certainly hope the Supreme Court isn't concluding that magistrates are unable to render justice on these issues," Rep. John Maher, R-Allegheny County, told the AP. "They certainly field a wide variety of litigation at this point."

Maher plans to introduce a nearly identical bill that would adopt the Minor Courts Rules Committee's proposal but without requiring magistrates to issue written findings-of-fact in rendering a decision.
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