Backing a plea by two newspapers, a Cumberland County judge has ordered The Dickinson School of Law's board of governors to open its meetings to the media and public. Judge Edward E. Guido agreed yesterday with The Patriot-News and The Sentinel of Carlisle that state law requires the board sessions to be open because it is an agency of Penn State University, a publicly funded institution.
The law school and Penn State merged in 2000.
Guido ordered that the board open its meeting on Saturday, when it might vote to keep the 170-year-old law school in Carlisle or move it to Penn State's campus in State College.
Board Chairman LeRoy S. Zimmerman vowed to appeal to Commonwealth Court.
"I have great respect for Judge Guido and the careful attention he devoted to this important legal case," Zimmerman said. "However, I can see no reason why we would not file a prompt appeal ... because of the important policy issue this decision appears to have for the university, the law school and all nonprofit organizations."
David Newhouse, executive editor of The Patriot-News, called Guido's ruling "a victory for the residents of Carlisle, for law school alumni and for everyone who cares about the future of the Dickinson Law School."
"As a part of Penn State, the law school's board meetings are the public's business, and we are delighted that Judge Guido has opened them to all concerned citizens," he said.
The newspapers have sought access to the board's meetings since law school Dean Phillip McConnaughay issued a memo in November outlining a proposal to move the school.
In a lawsuit, the newspapers insisted that the Sunshine Act, which specifies which meetings must be open, applies to the board because it is an agency of Penn State's board of trustees.
The law school board's lawyers claimed the law doesn't apply because the board is semiautonomous and can even sue Penn State to enforce terms of the merger agreement. Guido ruled that the Dickinson board is a "de facto committee" of Penn State's trustees.
If the board's meetings remain closed, "The public will be harmed by the denial of its right to witness the deliberations on a matter of importance to a publicly funded institution and to the local community," Guido ruled.