In this Right-to-Know Law (RTKL) case, the Commonwealth Court had to determine whether it had subject matter jurisdiction to hear an appeal of a denial issued by a district attorney’s office. Pennsylvanians for Union Reform (PFUR) requested itemized details of the dates, times, and durations of phone calls between all current and former members of the Centre County District Attorney’s Office (the D.A.) and members of the judiciary using government-issued cell phones, as well as the name and salary of the D.A.’s RTKL appeals officer. The Commonwealth Court transferred the case to the Centre County Court of Common Pleas after determining that the appeal was improperly filed.
The D.A.’s open records officer (ORO) denied PFUR’s request for the phone records but granted access to information regarding the D.A.’s appeals officer. The ORO based his denial of access to the phone records on the premise that the D.A. is a “judicial agency,” which is only required to disclose financial records under RTKL. Information related to the phone calls, according to the ORO, falls outside the scope of RTKL’s “judicial records” provision. 65 P.S. § 67.102. PFUR appealed to the D.A.’s appeals officer, who also determined that the phone records were exempt from disclosure. Finally, PFUR petitioned for review to the Commonwealth Court.
The threshold issue for the Commonwealth Court was whether or not it had subject matter jurisdiction to hear the appeal. Section 1031(a) of RTKL states that the Commonwealth Court may only hear appeals of final determinations by Commonwealth, legislative, and judicial agencies. 65 P.S. § 67.1301(a). The court disagreed with the D.A. that a district attorney’s office is a judicial agency. In fact, the court had recently held that a district attorney’s office is a local agency in Miller v. Cnty. of Centre, No. 856, 2016 WL 981393 (Pa. Commw. Ct. Mar. 15, 2016) (en banc). RTKL mandates that final determinations issued by local agencies be heard first by a court of common pleas before they can be heard at the Commonwealth level. 65 P.S. § 67.1302(a). Therefore, the proper court for this appeal was the Centre County Court of Common Pleas. Accordingly, the Commonwealth Court transferred the case.
In dictum, the court also noted the ORO’s mishandling of PFUR’s appeal after his initial denial of the phone records. In most RTKL appeals, the Office of Open Records (OOR) appoints an appeals officer to hear appeals from local agencies. 65 P.S. § 67.503(a). However, RTKL recognizes that criminal investigative records present special circumstances and mandates review by a district-attorney-appointed appeals officer. This special review is limited to access to criminal investigative records. In this case, the phone records were not “facially criminal investigative records,” so it is unclear why the D.A.’s ORO referred the appeal to the D.A.’s designated appeals officer. Nevertheless, even if it had been procedurally proper, the Commonwealth Court still would have lacked subject matter jurisdiction to hear the appeal.
Click here to read: Pennsylvanians for Union Reform v. Centre Cnty. Dist. Attorney’s Office, No. 1623 C.D. 2015 (Pa. Commw. Ct. June 1, 2016).
Bob Turchick, Law Clerk
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