PA Supreme Court Hears Arguments Over State Open Records Director

Erik Arneson. Courtesy of NewsWorks/WHYY.

Erik Arneson. Courtesy of NewsWorks/WHYY.

By Austin Nolen

Last month, on Wednesday, September 9th, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Erik Arneson, who was appointed at the end of Tom Corbett’s administration to head of the state’s Office of Open Records (OOR), only to be summarily fired by incoming governor Tom Wolf. The OOR hears disputes between records requesters and government agencies. Arneson sued, and in June the Commonwealth Court held that Wolf lacked the power to fire Arneson without cause. The governor promptly appealed that order to the state Supreme Court.

Four justices (Justice Stevens recused himself, and there are two vacancies on the court) sitting in the Supreme Court’s Philadelphia courtroom at City Hall heard arguments from the Attorney General’s Office representing the Governor and private attorneys representing Arneson and the state Senate Majority Caucus. The legal question was whether the state legislature intended to prevent the governor from firing the OOR’s director except for cause, or wrongdoing. Generally, officials serve at the governor’s pleasure, but the state constitution allows the legislature to create different terms.

Joel Frank and Matthew Haverstick, the lawyers for Arneson and the Senate Republicans respectively, repeated their claims that the structure of the Right to Know Law, which was designed to insure transparency in the state’s government, suggested that the legislature intended it to be difficult for the governor to remove the OOR director. Wolf’s lawyers, on the other hand, argued that the evidence presented was insufficient to show that Arneson could only be dismissed for cause. In a tense moment, Chief Justice Saylor told Wolf’s lawyers that they “might want to address” the opinion of the lower court explaining its decision in Arneson’s favor, because it is the “starting place, and we’re going to decide whether the opinion is right or wrong.”

Speaking after the hearing, Arneson told reporters that “the issues before the court are well known, and I’m just anxious for a decision. I think both sides made their best arguments, but I think my side has the advantage.” According to Arneson, Governor Wolf allowed him to resume work as the OOR director after the Commonwealth Court decision, but his future at the agency could still depend on the Supreme Court’s decision.

You can view the original Commonwealth Court decision, which also provides an overview of the issues in the case, here:

 

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