The Commonwealth Court yesterday ruled that The Dickinson School of Law's board of governors may keep its meetings closed to the public -- including talks on possibly moving the school out of Carlisle. The judges' 3-2 vote reverses a February order by Cumberland County Judge Edward E. Guido, which forbade the board from meeting behind closed doors.
The Patriot-News and The Sentinel of Carlisle had argued that the board of governors is a public entity because it is a committee of its parent institution, Penn State, and should be held to the state's open meetings law.
"We intend to appeal the [Commonwealth] decision," Patriot-News Executive Editor David Newhouse said.
"As a part of Penn State University, the law school's future is the public's business. As an important part of the Carlisle community, it is of vital importance to our readers," he said.
Commonwealth Judge Renee Cohen, in writing the court's opinion, said the board operates under a nonprofit association, separate and independent of Penn State, and is, therefore, not subject to the state Sunshine Act.
The board of governors "has no obligation to act in the best interests of PSU, but rather to act in the best interests of the association and the interests of the alumni of the former Dickinson School of Law that it represents," Cohen wrote.
She noted that the merger agreement between Dickinson and Penn State states that the law school cannot be relocated without the board's approval.
Board member G. Thomas Miller favors opening board talks on the topic.
"The public in general and [Carlisle leaders] in particular are so seriously interested in the matter and [have] support of many to keep the school in Carlisle," he said.
But private board meetings already are set for April 30 and May 1 in State College.
And it is expected that the board will weigh a Penn State offer to build a $60 million facility for Dickinson on its main campus at University Park.
"My understanding is that there would not be a vote next weekend on moving the school," said board member Hubert X. Gilroy of Carlisle. He said board committees, which studied options for replacing the school's aging facilities, will share their findings, and the board may decide more study is needed.
Board Chairman LeRoy S. Zimmerman yesterday said the board will keep the community abreast of its discussions. He said the media are invited to an information meeting at the board's May 1 session.
Some board members reportedly have recently discussed a move with Penn State President Graham Spanier, and several board members met this week with law school faculty.
A new home for the school was outlined in a November proposal that law school Dean Philip McConnaughay made to the board.
Leaders in Carlisle and the midstate community immediately protested, and state lawmakers have stepped in to try to prevent Penn State from receiving its full state subsidy unless it promises to keep Dickinson in Carlisle.
Business leaders who fear the loss of an estimated 227 jobs and $20 million in net community spending if the law school leaves have offered to help with relocation and financing if the school stays in or near Carlisle.
McConnaughay has said Dickinson risks a continued slide in national rankings unless it improves its physical setting and opportunities for law students.
But the board, composed of Dickinson alumni who work nationwide in firms and state and federal government posts -- including national Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge -- has the final say.