Miller v. Cnty. of Ctr.

Decision Date22 November 2017
Docket NumberNo. 99 MAP 2016,No. 98 MAP 2016,98 MAP 2016,99 MAP 2016
Citation173 A.3d 1162
Parties Stacy Parks MILLER, District Attorney, Appellant v. COUNTY OF CENTRE; Sean P. McGraw ; Andrew Shubin, Attorney at Law, d/b/a/ The Law Office of Andrew Shubin; Bernard F. Cantorna, Esquire, Bryant & Cantorna, P.C.; and John Does 1–5, Appellees Stacy Parks Miller, District Attorney, Appellant v. County of Centre; Sean P. McGraw ; Andrew Shubin, Attorney at Law, d/b/a/ The Law Office of Andrew Shubin; Bernard F. Cantorna, Esquire, Bryant & Cantorna, P.C.; and John Does 1–5, Appellees
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

David R. Crowley, Esq., Centre County Public Defender's Office, for Amicus Curiae Public Defender Association of Pennsylvania.

Joel L. Frank, Esq., Scot Russel Withers, Esq., Lamb McErlane, PC, for Amicus Curiae Pennsylvania Office of Open Records.

Casey Ann Gillespie, Esq., Gillespie, Miscavige, & Ferdinand, L.L.C., for Amicus Curiae County Commissioner's Association of Pennsylvania.

Melissa Bevan Melewsky, Esq., Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, for Amicus Curiae Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association and ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Ronald D. Barber, Esq., for Participants Sean P. McGraw, Andrew Shubin, Attorney at Law, D/B/A/ The Law Office of Andrew Shubin.

John Timothy Hinton Jr., Esq., for Participants Bernard F. Cantorna, Esquire and Bryant & Cantorna, P.C.

Robert J. Gillespie Jr., Amicus Curiae, pro se.

Bruce Lee Castor Jr., Esq., Rogers & Associates, LLC, Appellant.

Mary Lou Maierhofer, Esq., Margolis Edelstein, Craig James Staudenmaier, Esq., Joshua D. Bonn, Esq., Nauman, Smith, Shissler & Hall, LLP, for Appellees.

SAYLOR, C.J., BAER, TODD, DONOHUE, DOUGHERTY, WECHT, MUNDY, JJ.

OPINION

JUSTICE WECHT

In this appeal, we decide whether the office of Stacy Parks Miller ("Parks Miller"), the District Attorney of Centre County, Pennsylvania, is an "office or entity of the unified judicial system" and thus properly classified as a "judicial agency" for purposes of application of Pennsylvania's Right-to-Know Law, 65 P.S. §§ 67.101 – 67.3104 ("RTKL").1 Under the RTKL, only the financial records of a judicial agency are subject to disclosure in response to RTKL requests. 65 P.S. § 67.304. Parks Miller contends that this limitation upon the scope of disclosure of judicial records applies to district attorneys.

In a unanimous, published en banc opinion, the Commonwealth Court concluded that a district attorney's office is not a "judicial agency" for purposes of the RTKL. Miller v. Cty. of Centre, 135 A.3d 233 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2016) (en banc). In arriving at this conclusion, the Commonwealth Court turned to the definitions of "personnel of the system," "related staff," "county staff," and "system and related personnel" in the definitions section of the Pennsylvania Judicial Code, 42 Pa.C.S. § 102. The Commonwealth Court determined that a district attorney's office is "county staff" and "related staff," i.e., two categories which are expressly excluded from the Judicial Code's definition of "personnel of the system."

We agree with the Commonwealth Court. Examination of the RTKL, the definitional section of the Judicial Code, 42 Pa.C.S. § 102, and the definitions provided in our Rules of Judicial Administration, demonstrate that a district attorney's office is not a "judicial agency" for purposes of the RTKL. Accordingly, we affirm.

I. Background
A. Factual History

Between 2014 and 2015, several Centre County criminal defense attorneys submitted separate RTKL requests to Centre County ("County") seeking emails, text messages, instant messages, and/or other electronic communications exchanged between Parks Miller and certain members of the Centre County judiciary, including Court of Common Pleas Judge Jonathan Grine and Magisterial District Judge Kelley Gillette–Walker (collectively, the "Judges"). The RTKL requests also asked the County to produce a log of text messages, phone calls, and voicemail messages, including the date and time of each call/text message, the duration of the call, and the substance of the text message/voicemail, if available.

The County responded to the RTKL requests without notifying Parks Miller or the Judges. Am. Compl., ¶¶ 27, 38. The County produced, inter alia, electronic billing information provided to it by Verizon and created color-coded spreadsheets that tracked usage between the Judges and Parks Miller's office, including the time, date, length of call, and type of communication (call or text). Id., ¶ 25. The spreadsheets did not reveal the content of the communications. Because Parks Miller's office email resides on the County's server, the County also read her emails during the relevant periods, determined which were subject to disclosure, and produced them to the requesters without Parks Miller's knowledge. Id., ¶¶ 20–21, 30, 32. The records obtained by the attorney-requesters were subsequently used in criminal cases to demonstrate improper ex parte communications between Parks Miller and the Judges. Id., ¶¶ 23, 25.

B. Procedural History

Parks Miller and the two Judges each filed a separate action requesting declaratory and injunctive relief, seeking to enjoin the County from responding to any RTKL requests on their behalf. The trial court consolidated the actions filed by the two Judges, and entered a preliminary injunction enjoining the County from making any response to RTKL requests for judicial records and directing that such requests instead be forwarded to the open records officer designated for the appropriate judicial agency (pursuant to County policy, the Prothonotary and/or the district court administrator). On appeal, the Commonwealth Court affirmed the trial court's entry of a preliminary injunction. Grine v. Cty. of Centre, 138 A.3d 88 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2016). This Court denied the County's petition for allowance of appeal.

In her separate action, Parks Miller alleged that a district attorney's office is a "judicial agency" under the RTKL. Citing to the definition of the phrase "system and related personnel" in the Pennsylvania Rules of Judicial Administration, which references "district attorneys," Parks Miller contended that district attorneys' offices are part of Pennsylvania's unified judicial system. Asserting that hers is a "judicial agency" under the RTKL, Parks Miller argued that only the financial records of her office are subject to disclosure in response to RTKL requests. See 65 P.S. § 67.304.

Following a hearing on May 13, 2015, the trial court accepted Parks Miller's argument and granted the injunction. The trial court entered an order preliminarily enjoining the County from "making any response to any request made pursuant to the [RTKL] for judicial records relating to the [DA's office]," and directed that future RTKL requests to Parks Miller be directed to "the appropriate [county] official" for RTKL requests to the district attorney's office in accordance with the County's RTKL policy. Trial Court Order, 5/13/2015. In so ruling, from the bench, the trial court made clear that it considered the actions brought by the Judges and Parks Miller to present the same basic issue of disclosure of judicial records: "I have already made a decision ... in the [Judges' cases] ... and I'm certainly not going to change my opinion in this case." N.T. 90: 16–20, May 12, 2015.

The County appealed the trial court's decision to grant Parks Miller a preliminary injunction. In a unanimous en banc opinion, the Commonwealth Court reversed.2 In concluding that a district attorney's office is not a "judicial agency," the Commonwealth Court looked to definitions contained in the Pennsylvania Judicial Code, 42 Pa.C.S. §§ 101 – 9813. Miller, 135 A.3d at 237. The Commonwealth Court noted that a district attorney's office does not fall within the definition of "personnel of the system," which includes judicial officers, personal staff, administrative staff, and central staff. Instead, the court found that a district attorney's office constitutes "related staff," which is comprised of public employees that serve the unified judicial system but are not personnel of the system, as well as "county staff," because Parks Miller holds a county elected position. Id. at 237–38 (citing 42 Pa.C.S. § 102 ; Rosenwald v. Barbieri, 501 Pa. 563, 462 A.2d 644, 647 (1983) ("the term ‘related staff’ covers those whose function aids the judicial process but who are not supervised by the courts")). The Commonwealth Court further observed that the Pennsylvania Constitution includes district attorneys as "county officers," a category not supervised by the courts. Id. at 238 (citing PA. CONST. art. IX, § 4 ; Beckert v. Warren, 497 Pa. 137, 439 A.2d 638, 644 (1981) ). Based upon the foregoing, and because the "office is not judicial in nature" or vested with any judicially-related powers, the Commonwealth Court concluded that the trial court erred by finding that Parks Miller's office was a "judicial agency" under the RTKL. Id. at 238–39.

This Court granted discretionary review to answer the following question: "Do district attorneys and their offices constitute ‘judicial agencies' as defined under Section 102 of the Right-to-Know–Law, 65 P.S. § 67.102 ?" Miller v. Cty. of Centre, 158 A.3d 1236 (Pa. 2016). This issue involves the proper interpretation of a statute. It is therefore a pure question of law, for which our standard of review is de novo and our scope of review is plenary. See, e.g., A. Scott Enters., Inc. v. City of Allentown, 636 Pa. 249, 142 A.3d 779, 786 (2016) ; In re Estate of Stephano, 602 Pa. 527, 981 A.2d 138, 140 (2009).

In support of her position, Parks Miller repeats the arguments she presented to the trial court and the Commonwealth Court, focusing upon application of definitions of various terms (e.g., "personnel of the system," "system and related personnel") in the Judicial Code and the Rules of Judicial Administration. Parks Miller finds it particularly appropriate to treat records maintained by a district attorney's...

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