A Cumberland County judge is to rule early next week on a plea by two newspapers to open meetings of The Dickinson School of Law's board of governors to reporters and the public. The Patriot-News and The Sentinel claim in a lawsuit against the board that the meetings should be open under the state's Sunshine Act, which determines what meetings are open to the public and the media.
Judge Edward E. Guido is under a deadline to decide the case because the board is to meet Feb. 7 and may vote on a proposal to move the law school from Carlisle to Penn State University or elsewhere.
The newspapers began seeking access to the meetings soon after law school Dean Phillip McConnaughay proposed moving the school in a memo to board of governors members in November.
The 170-year-old law school merged with Penn State in 2000.
During a 31/2-hour hearing yesterday, attorneys for the papers argued that the law school's board is a committee of Penn State's board of trustees and so is subject to the Sunshine Act, because Penn State is a public entity that receives tax funding.
The board provides advice to Penn State officials, and has veto power over issues including relocation of the school, they said.
"Common sense tells me that this is a committee ... of the university trustees," Sentinel lawyer Niles S. Benn said.
Lawyers for the law school's board of governors insisted the board is not an agency of Penn State and does not fit the Sunshine Act's committee definition.
The board of governors can even sue Penn State if board members believe the university is violating the merger agreement, they said.
"The board of governors is a separate, nonprofit, independent association," said Jack M. Stover, the board's attorney. "It sets its own agenda."
Patriot-News attorney Craig J. Staudenmaier asked Guido not only to grant the papers access to board of governors meetings, but to order the board to provide minutes from prior meetings.
Camp Hill attorney G. Thomas Miller, a board of governors member called to the witness stand by the papers, said he expects a vote will be taken on the relocation idea at the Feb. 7 meeting.
"I think it's important that we proceed to a decision as soon as possible," Miller said. "We've had plenty of time to talk about this."
"I promise I will work on this with due dispatch," Guido said. "It is a complicated case."