Judges say Wolf administration can’t hide judicial vacancy applications, rule in favor of LNP | Pennsylvania
In an important step in opening up a government process that has traditionally been kept secret, a jury said Tuesday that applications for people hoping to fill vacancies in the judiciary should not be kept secret under the Pennsylvania Right to Know .
The judges upheld two open file rulings by the state’s top officials, dated in late 2019 and early 2020, and dismissed arguments from Governor Tom Wolf’s government, saying his attorneys needed a trial to clear court motions to LNP | promote LancasterOnline.
Judicial appointments – made by the governor and approved by the Senate when a position becomes vacant – have been screened for their traditionally secret process.
Private negotiations between the governor and senators followed by swift approval leave little space for the public to scrutinize applicants who are temporarily in the positions before, in most cases, running for the same seat in the next elections.
“When a person tries to fill the elected office in the usual way through campaign and election, the entire process is public to all candidates. The process shouldn’t be less public when a vacant elected office is filled by appointment, ”said Melissa Melewsky, media legal advisor for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association. “When civil servants are following in the footsteps of voters to fill an elected office, transparency is critical to maintaining public confidence in both the appointed and appointed officials.”
LNP | LancasterOnline was looking for the applications for any open seats of justice the last time the Wolf and Senate Republicans went through the process – in 2019.
The governor’s general counsel’s office eventually published 124 pages of motions for the five people who were quickly nominated and approved – including one for best Senate Republican attorney named Commonwealth Court. The administration continued to shield the names of all other applicants, arguing that applicants should be treated like anyone else seeking government employment.
In another request, LNP reporter Carter Walker was looking for applications for a position that had been established at the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas in late 2019. The governor never nominated anyone for that seat and declined to publish the names of the candidates.
The Office of Open Records, which handles the news organisation’s appeals in both cases, said that while application documents for government employees are exempt from disclosure, that exemption does not apply to candidates who would fill a position in the elected office and are approved by the Senate have to.
Commonwealth Court Judge Fr Kevin Brobson, who wrote the statement on the case this week, agreed with the Open Records Office and LNP that the right to know the law and the Sunshine Act distinguish between agency employees and officials such as government officials .
He also rejected the administration’s arguments that the requests fell under the exemption for recordings in private deliberations. The news organization looked for applications that were filled with facts, rather than memos that “included recommendations from a candidate who was more qualified than someone else,” he wrote.
Brobson cited an argument from lawyers for LNP: “Just as the public would have access to the full list of candidates who would appear on the ballot if the Commonwealth Court position were to be filled in the electoral process, the public has a right to know who has sought consideration of the vacant seat that was filled by an appointment as governor. “
While the judges ruled that the information should not be screened, they said applicants should be notified and given the opportunity to be heard about the publication of their information, some of which may be edited.
They sent the case back to the Office of Open Records to notify these people and perform a “balancing test” to see if certain information should be kept private. Their appointment did not specify a timeframe for this process or how the office should use potential editors.
Melewsky said it was unclear how far the office would go to edit private information, but she stressed that the separate electoral law was “a clear roadmap” given the expectation of privacy for those seeking elected office Compared to other government employees “considerably less” is.
Melewsky also said the case has “potentially far-reaching implications” as it could apply to vacancies not only at the judicial level, but also in locally elected offices such as school boards and local councils, which are also filled by agreement.
A spokesman for Governor Wolf’s office said the office was still considering the statement.
Commonwealth Court Judge J. Andrew Crompton, the former Senate attorney appointed in late 2019, was not involved in the ruling, according to court documents.
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