PHILADELPHIA Appeals court judges peppered attorneys with questions Wednesday on whether the board of governors of Penn State's Dickinson School of Law had the right to meet privately on proposals to move the school.
The five-judge Commonwealth Court panel heard arguments on the Dickinson board's appeal of a preliminary injunction issued a month ago by Cumberland County Common Pleas Judge Edward E. Guido.
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. Guido sided with the newspapers and ordered the board to open all future meetings.
News reports said the law school's dean was recommending that the school move from Carlisle to State College by the fall of 2008, citing a need to expand and concerns about its "languishing reputation."
In Wednesday's hearing, attorneys focused on whether the Dickinson board was operating as a Penn State "committee" subject to the open-meetings law, or whether it should be considered an independent body that could hold closed meetings.
Dickinson board attorney Jack Stover said that, far from functioning as a Penn State panel, the board was set up as part of a 1997 merger agreement to be a separate body.
"If we're not a committee, we're not under this act," Stover said. Forcing such meetings open, he said, would be like requiring open meetings by the board of a nonprofit group set up to give out scholarships or provide medical care to state prison inmates.
"Why is it so important for this meeting to be secret?" President Judge James Gardner Colins asked. Stover said members had the right to meet privately to communicate freely and that any decision would still go to a public meeting of the Penn State board.
"Our right is to decide whether to waive or enforce (covenants)," Stover said. After that, he said, "Penn State University decides, and that will be a public decision."
Other members of the panel asked whether a university could create a nonprofit body to handle debate on touchy issues so such meetings could be private. Stover said such meetings could be forced open by the state attorney general.
Sentinel attorney Niles S. Benn said the court should look at how the board functioned rather than what it was called. "I have a very hard time determining that this is not a committee of Pennsylvania State University," he said.
Judge Dan Pellegrini repeatedly questioned how the Dickinson board could be a Penn State committee if it was also empowered to sue the university.
"If I'm part of Penn State, how can I sue it?" he asked. "How can you sue yourself?"
"Because that's what Penn State University agreed to," Benn responded.
Colins pointed out that even if the law school board were to decide to waive all covenants and become part of Penn State "lock stock and barrel," the decision would still have to go to an open meeting of the Penn State board.
If not, he said, "I think there's the potential for litigation to employ many graduates" of the law school.
Patriot-News attorney Craig Staudenmaier, however, said the open-meetings law was intended to give the public access to not only the decision but to the debate involved. "The process is just as important as the final result," he said.
Benn said he expects a decision by the appeals panel in the next few weeks.
The law school has set up four committees to study proposals to expand the current location, move the school to another site in the Carlisle area or to State College, and how to fund the options. Lawmakers from south-central Pennsylvania, meanwhile, are seeking ways to keep the school in Carlisle.
Dickinson, founded in 1834, is Pennsylvania's oldest law school and the fifth-oldest in the United States, according to the school. The law school, which has about 650 students, merged with Penn State in 2000.