Who signed the order?
HARRISBURG — Just four-and-half days after he began serving a state prison term, former House Speaker Bill DeWeese was seen out on the town here. He even attended a Senators minor league baseball game.
How could that be? The Waynesburg Democrat, 62, was released via a per curiam order from the Superior Court. Which judge or judges let him loose? We’ll never know because the court’s rules allow one or more judges to hide behind a cloak of anonymity when issuing such orders.
It happened because DeWeese’s attorney, William C. Costopoulos, filed an emergency petition stating Dauphin County President Judge Todd A. Hoover had not acted on DeWeese’s request for bail while appealing his case. That was filed April 26, two days after he was sentenced to 2 1⁄2 to 5 years in state prison.
DeWeese went to Dauphin County Prison on May 14. It’s used a steppingstone for prisoners heading to Camp Hill State Correctional Institution. He was released from Camp Hill following the Superior Court order on May 18.
He’s now back in after Hoover last week denied bail and the Superior Court upheld his decision.
In an unprecedented situation, DeWeese is one of seven former legislative leaders facing prison time for using public resources for campaigns as a result of investigations by the state attorney general, the FBI and the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office.
During his four-plus days of freedom DeWeese ate Chinese food, rode his bike and spent time with his girlfriend, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
The key question — why does a state appellate court allow judges to rule anonymously?
A request filed with the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts for the names of judges signing that order produced only a copy of the court’s rules saying per curiam orders are guarded by confidentiality. Right to Know Law requests, you see, really don’t apply to the court, except on financial matters. Other internal court matters are off limits to the public.
Superior Court President Judge Correale Stevens is asking why the nameless rulings are needed.
“That’s a policy (issuing per curiam orders) recently brought to my attention,” Stevens said. “It’s been in effect a long time. … I’m going to speak to my colleagues and revisit this and see if we can move forward toward more openness.”
This type of order is often used instead of a majority opinion, either because there is no time to write one or because each judge has her own opinion and no majority opinion can be written, said Bruce Ledewitz, a professor at Duquesne Law School.
“Also, dissenting judges often state that they dissent from the order. So, it is fair to attribute the order to each judge who did not dissent. Per curiam orders are common, but usually are issued in housekeeping contexts (for example, an extension of time to file a brief),” Ledewitz said.
“They are also used in big cases in which there is only agreement on the outcome — the Pentagon Papers case, for example, was a per curiam order with numerous opinions.”
In an era of professed transparency, the public should at least know who issued a court order.
When the issue is the freedom of a former powerful pol, anonymity raises questions of appearance.
Full disclosure protects the court and fulfills the intent of a democratic republic.