Commonwealth Court Addresses Recusal Standard in RTK Cases

In Butler v. Dauphin County District Attorney’s Office, the Commonwealth Court recently clarified when judges are required to recuse themselves and whether government agencies can be required to certify documents. The case involved a RTKL request by Cleveland Butler seeking disclosure of search warrants and inventory lists issued in a criminal case against him. The Court of Common Pleas of Dauphin County affirmed the final determination of the OOR directing the District Attorney of Dauphin County to provide the documents. Butler appealed, arguing that the trial court judge should have recused himself from the proceeding since the judge served as the District Attorney at the time of Butler’s arrest, and that the District Attorney’s office violated Section 904 of the RTKL by refusing to certify the documents it was required to disclose.

The Commonwealth Court held that the trial court judge was not required to recuse himself. Following the analysis of a United States Supreme Court case, the Commonwealth Court recognized that constitutional due process rights may be compromised when a jurist now sitting in judgment on a criminal case participated in and makes decisions regarding the prosecution of a defendant. However, Butler’s RTKL case was not a criminal case and therefore the trial judge was not required to recuse himself. The Court quoted the U.S. Supreme Court which outlined, “where a judge has had earlier significant, personal involvement as a prosecutor in a critical decision regarding the defendant’s case, the risk of actual bias in the judicial proceeding rises to an unconstitutional level.”  Moreover, the party seeking recusal has the burden to show why it would be proper and Butler never filed a recusal motion or motion for reconsideration, effectively waiving his opportunity to raise it as an issue on appeal.

On the certification question, an issue of first impression, the Commonwealth Court affirmed the trial court’s denial of Butler’s petition for review since the District Attorney’s Office provided a statement affirming that the records provided were true copies. Section 904 of the RTKL allows an agency to impose reasonable fees for the official certification of copies. The Court explained that within the context of Section 904, certification means “to authenticate”. Ultimately, it found that since the District Attorney’s Office did not have a protocol for certifying documents and did not charge a fee for certification, the affirmation provided by the District Attorney’s Office was a functional equivalent of “certification” within the context of the RTKL. The court recognized that RTKL challenges often involve a two-step process, the first being the challenge of the grant or denial of access, and the second being the challenge to the level of access provided. Furthermore, it confirmed that a fee must be paid to trigger an agency’s duty to certify documents.

This RTKL case raises unique issues from other RTKL cases. The Commonwealth Court was tasked with addressing issues it had not decided on before. The Court’s reasoning provides valuable insight into these novel topics.

Disclaimer:  This blog is maintained by the members of Nauman Smith’s Media and Right-to-Know Law practice group.  The members of this practice group represent both: 1) media entities, individuals and corporations seeking access to public records, and 2) local municipalities seeking to comply with the law.  THIS BLOG IS NOT MEANT TO BE USED AS LEGAL ADVICE.  The purpose of this blog is to provide educational material for individuals interested in Pennsylvania’s open records law, commonly referred to as the “Right-to-Know Law” or “RTKL”.  The opinions expressed by the individual members of the practice group are solely their own, and do not reflect the opinions of Nauman, Smith, Shissler & Hall, LLP, or the practice group as a whole.

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