Thursday, March 04, 2004

Judges hear appeal of law school ruling - March 4, 2004

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Thursday, March 4, 2004

Judges hear appeal of law school ruling ; Dickinson wants public barred from meetings

Of The Associated Press

Appeals court judges peppered attorneys with questions yesterday on whether the board of governors of Penn State University's Dickinson School of Law had the right to meet privately to discuss proposals to move the school out of Carlisle. The five-judge Commonwealth Court panel heard arguments on the Dickinson board's appeal of a preliminary injunction issued last month by Cumberland County Common Pleas Judge Edward E. Guido.

The Patriot-News and The Sentinel of Carlisle went to court in November to try to force open board meetings. Guido sided with the newspapers and ordered the board to open all meetings.

Law school Dean Philip McConnaughay in November urged the board to consider a Penn State offer to build a $60 million facility for Dickinson at University Park. McConnaughay cited the need to expand and voiced concerns about the school's drop in national rankings.

Attorneys yesterday focused on whether the Dickinson board was operating as a Penn State ?committee,?? subject to the open-meetings law, or an independent body that could hold closed meetings.

Dickinson board attorney Jack Stover said that under a 1997 merger agreement, the board is a separate body.

"If we're not a committee, we're not under this act," Stover said.

"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 and that any decision would still go to a public meeting of the Penn State board.

Other members of the panel asked whether a university could create a nonprofit body to debate sensitive issues. Stover said the state attorney general could force open such meetings.

Niles S. Benn, The Sentinel attorney, said the court should look at how the board functioned. ?I have a very hard time determining that this is not a committee of Pennsylvania State University,?? he said.

Judge Dan Pellegrini asked how the Dickinson board could be a committee if it could also sue the university.

"How can you sue yourself?" he asked.

"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, the decision would still have to go to an open meeting of the Penn State board.

Patriot-News attorney Craig Staudenmaier said the open-meetings law was intended to give the public access to the decision and the debate. ?The process is just as important as the final result,?? he said.

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 to study how to fund the options.

Dickinson, founded in 1834, is Pennsylvania's oldest law school. The law school, which has about 650 students, merged with Penn State in 2000.

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