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Why Spotlight PA is suing York's Clerk of Courts

Plus, Pa.'s university system merger clears key hurdle.

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A daily newsletter by Spotlight PA

Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
March 16, 2022
Legal action, rural killing, merger moves, criminal conduct, moving on, stepping down, and Pennsylvania's 'Best Coffee Shop.' It's Wednesday.
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Spotlight PA and four other Pennsylvania news organizations are suing the York County Clerk of Courts over alleged First Amendment violations involving public access to court records.

The suit alleges Clerk of Courts Daniel J. Byrnes shut down free, easy access and instituted a policy that slowed the documents' release, changes the news outlets argue created unconstitutional barriers.

Of 42 case records requested by reporters from the outlets in September, only one was received on the same day and without details obscured, according to the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, a legal services group that is representing the newsrooms in the legal case.

Spotlight PA is joined by the York Daily Record, The York Dispatch, LNP Media Group, and public radio's WITF in the lawsuit, which names Byrnes, a Republican who was elected in 2020, as the sole defendant.

Reached by Spotlight PA, Byrnes said, "The York County Clerk's Office flatly rejects the unfounded claims made in this frivolous lawsuit."

THE CONTEXT: The lawsuit coincides with Sunshine Week, a period in March when news media across the country call attention to the work journalists do to fight for public records and transparency in government.

Public records are crucial for reporters working to inform the public on pivotal matters, as proven by Spotlight PA's work on the state's COVID-19 response, lawmaker spending, addiction treatment, and other pressing issues.

When access is delayed or denied, Sasha Dudding, a legal fellow for the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, says, "it makes it more difficult for journalists to report on, and for communities to oversee the judicial system, law enforcement, public spending, and government officials," adding, "Both state and federal Constitutions guarantee this right of access..."

To learn more about Pennsylvania's open records law, how it impacts media coverage, and how you can use it, too, join Spotlight PA and a panel of experts via Zoom at 6:30 tonight for a free panel on the topic. Register here.
THIS IS A GAMECHANGER: We've been challenged to raise $25,000 to prove how much Pennsylvanians value the hard-hitting, nonpartisan investigative journalism that Spotlight PA produces.

There is no better time to support Spotlight PA than now, because for a limited time, every contribution will be DOUBLED thanks to a generous matching gift from The Benter Foundation in Pittsburgh.

If you're a fan of PA Post and have made it part of your daily routine, pay it forward and support Spotlight PA's vital journalism today. Give now »

» THANK YOU to the 12 people who contributed to our March membership drive yesterday.

"I realize I'm a David challenging the massive nonprofit Goliaths, but I believe the cause is right."

—Pittsburgh Councilor Ricky Burgess on a proposal that would seek voluntary payments from the city's tax-exempt nonprofits to fund infrastructure repair
» FOR THE RECORD: Join us today at 6:30 p.m. ET via Zoom as our reporters and other experts discuss Pennsylvania's open records law, how it impacts Spotlight PA's coverage, and how you can use it, too. Register here and submit questions to events@spotlightpa.org
A very big bird in Philly, courtesy of @lora_exploresSend us your gems, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
NO CHARGES: The killing of Peter Spencer, a Jamaican immigrant who was shot nine times on a Venango County camping trip with colleagues, has been ruled an act of self-defense. The case drew investigators from a hate crimes unit of the Pennsylvania State Police, but authorities say Spencer was intoxicated and aimed a gun at another camper, who then shot Spencer in the back, neck, and chest, per KDKA-TV. 

MERGER PLAN: The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education's plan to merge six of its 14 universities into two new entities has cleared one of its final hurdles, earning approval from a key accrediting body on Tuesday, The Inquirer reports. The schools continue to wait for word from the NCAA on whether each of the six campuses can maintain their individual sports teams. The mergers take effect July 1.

INSIDE JOB: The former head detective for Lancaster County's drug task force has been charged with stealing more than $200,000 in money seized or forfeited by court orders during drug investigations. John E. Burkhart, 56, was fired by District Attorney Heather Adams in 2020, allegedly for poor management skills and falsifying a report. His successor noticed money from investigations was missing. 

BALLOT SPACE: The deadline for Pennsylvania political candidates to gather enough signatures from voters to land on the May primary ballot has passed, and the sprawling fields for governor and U.S. Senate didn't shrink as much as some expected. Capital-Star has a list of the hopefuls who submitted enough signatures to continue. Among them: an attorney general, a lieutenant governor, and a TV star.

NEW VACANCY: Northampton County’s head of elections has stepped down weeks before May's primary election. Amy Cozze is going to work for U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.). A local official told WLVR it could take "anywhere from several days to several weeks" to fill the role. NPR reports a nationwide survey of local election officials found 1 in 5 are likely to quit before the 2024 presidential election arrives.
COFFEE BRAG: Lancaster's Passenger Coffee is the best coffee shop in Pennsylvania, according to Food & Wine magazine, which raves about its "precise, exciting coffees" that are "worth a visit from anywhere." 

CONVENTION CALL: Allentown will host the fifth annual Pennsylvania Latino Convention, a nonpartisan gathering about Latino life and issues in the commonwealth, for the first time this fall, WLVR reports.

PERFECT GAMES: Congrats to Stephen Kosela, who bowled three perfect games back-to-back in Aliquippa over the weekend. The owner of Sheffield Lanes told WTAE it's just the 38th perfect 900 series in U.S. history.

COMEBACK: Brillobox is back. The Bloomfield hangout, thought gone for good, has returned with "new fixtures but the same energy that made it a Pittsburgh institution," via Pittsburgh Magazine.

POSTMODERN: A map of "The Former United States of America," circa 2030, splits Pennsylvania into two territories: "The Most Serene Republic of Wawa-Wegmans," and "Sheetz Free State (unrecognized)."
Unscramble and send your answer to scrambler@spotlightpa.org. We'll shout out winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA swag.

*This week's theme: Math words
Yesterday's answer: Infinitesimal

Congrats to our daily winners: Craig W., Karen M., Susan N.-Z., Vicki U., Ted W., Doris T., Bonnie R., Becky C., Michelle T., Keith F., Don H., Kevin H., Barbara F., Chris M., Susan D., Judith D., Cathleen K.-J., Suzanne O., Elaine C., Joyce O., Steve D., Stephen G., Matt P., George S., Deb N., Al M., Tish M., David S., John F., Kimberly S., James B., Steve B., Fred H., Heidi B., Dianne K., Carol W., Bill S., Karen W., Elizabeth W., John P., John A., Eddy Z., Sharon P., Pat B., Sue C., Jill K., and Daniel M.
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