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Judge must open lawsuit about juvenile detention center

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   PENNSYLVANIA   ·   Secret Courts   ·   Nov. 17, 2005

Judge must open lawsuit about juvenile detention center

  • A juvenile detention center’s trade secret claims are insufficient grounds for closing a case involving a substantial amount of public money and allegations of improper ties between the center and prominent county officials, a state appellate court ruled Wednesday.

Nov. 17, 2005  ·   The Superior Court of Pennsylvania, finding that a juvenile detention center’s “weak” assertions involving trade secrets “appear to be nothing more than a ruse to prevent public exposure,” ruled Wednesday that a trial court improperly sealed records in the case and denied a newspaper’s attempt to intervene for access to the records.

A three-judge appellate panel ruled unanimously that the Court of Common Pleas of Luzerne County abused its discretion in December 2004 when it denied The (Wilkes-Barre) Times Leader’s attempt to intervene in the sealed case, preventing public access to the record. Open proceedings are “particularly important in actions that concern public money, a contract with a public body, and allegations of misuse of millions of dollars in public funds,” Judge Mary Jane Bowes wrote for the panel. Although in some instances the presumption of openness can be overcome where “closure serves an important governmental interest and there is no less restrictive way to serve that interest,” she wrote that in this case “the public interest weighs heavily in the favor of openness.”

A lawyer for The Times Leader argued to the appellate court that the lower court’s closure violated the right to an open court granted by the Pennsylvania Constitution.

The Times Leader lawyer also alerted the Superior Court that the lower court judge, Michael Conahan, was a friend of a co-owner of the juvenile detention center, Pennsylvania ChildCare, and argued that the sealing was illegal for various reasons. The trial court judge had sealed the record at the request of Pennsylvania ChildCare, allegedly to protect trade secrets, before any of the defendants in the lawsuit had an opportunity to respond. In overturning the sealing, the appellate court ruled that not only were ChildCare’s assertions about its need to protect trade secrets “weak ,” but its “interest in its trade secrets can be protected by less encompassing means than closing these proceedings in their entirety.”

Pennsylvania ChildCare sued county officials who released results of a preliminary audit of ChildCare to the press. In its complaint, ChildCare claimed that the defendants intended to, and should be stopped from, publicizing company documents that would reveal its unique “business plan, methods, techniques, and processes.”

Luzerne County Controller Stephen Flood, one defendant, had subpoenaed Pennsylvania ChildCare records from the Department of Public Welfare, which was auditing the county’s lease with the company. The preliminary results of the audit showed that ChildCare’s daily charges were the highest in Pennsylvania and that the county would be overcharged under the lease. Flood gave the preliminary findings to the press, and ChildCare sued him and two state officials involved in the audit.

(Pa. Childcare LLC v. Flood; Media counsel: Ralph Kates, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.)SB

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