HARRISBURG The governing board of Penn State's law school can legally meet in private to discuss proposals to move the school, a panel of state appellate judges said today in a 3-2 ruling.
The board's chairman said he would make an exception to the tradition of private meetings, however, by allowing the media to attend one day of its next two-day meeting scheduled at Penn State's University Park campus.
The Commonwealth Court panel's ruling overturned a preliminary injunction issued in February by a Cumberland County judge that barred the Dickinson School of Law board from holding closed meetings.
The Patriot-News of Harrisburg and The Sentinel of Carlisle went to court in November to try to force open an "informational meeting" about the school's facilities and location.
The board is considering a recommendation by the law school's dean to move the 170-year-old school -- the state's oldest law school -- from Carlisle to Penn State's main campus within the next few years. The dean has cited a need for the school to upgrade its facilities and a need to improve its reputation.
In the majority opinion, Judge Renee L. Cohn agreed with the board's contention that it should be exempt from the open-meetings law because it is an independent, private entity and not a "committee" of Penn State.
"Because the (board) has a separate legal identity, and has the authority to sue PSU, it does not come within the meaning of a 'committee of' PSU," Cohn wrote.
Judges Doris A. Smith-Ribner and James Gardner Colins disagreed, saying that under an agreement that merged the law school with Penn State in 2000, the board of governors has the authority to advise the university's board of trustees on law school matters.
"There is no question that meetings at which the board takes official action or renders advice on agency business should be open to the public subject to any limitations imposed under the Sunshine Act," Smith-Ribner wrote in the dissenting opinion.
Patriot-News attorney Craig Staudenmaier said he was disappointed by the ruling but added he would have to review it with the newspaper before deciding whether to appeal to the state Supreme Court.
"When you look at the manner in which the board was formed and its functions, it is in essence a de-facto committee of Penn State, and its meetings should be just as open to the public," Staudenmaier said.
Sentinel attorney Niles Benn did not return a telephone call seeking comment.
Dickinson's board had suspended its meetings in recent months pending the Commonwealth Court panel's ruling. Its next meetings are scheduled for April 30 and May 1 in State College, and media will be allowed to attend on May 1, when Penn State officials are scheduled to discuss possible law school campus sites, said board Chairman LeRoy S. Zimmerman.
The board is not expected to decide on whether to move the law school at that meeting, Zimmerman said.
"The board has to make its decision, and it will be made in a timely fashion, but only after the board has examined the facts and all of the options," he said.