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Protection-from-abuse orders public again in Fayette

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Wednesday, July 30, 2014, 11:06 p.m.
 

Public access to protection-from-abuse orders in Fayette County has been restored.

A Tribune-Review investigation found the prothonotary had sealed them without judges' orders and with the approval of a law firm that employed her husband.

Since those issues were made public, Prothonotary Nina Frankhouser has reversed the policy, making the orders once again accessible. She has hired a new firm to act as solicitor for her office.

In response to Right-to-Know requests filed last week seeking access to four court orders for protection, Uniontown attorney Ewing “Ed” Newcomer said all abuse orders have been opened to the public. They are commonly sought for protection from an allegedly abusive spouse who is ordered by a judge to refrain from contact with a victim.

“What is now accessible in the office computer is the defendant's name and case number,” Newcomer said. “As far as the files themselves, what we call paper files, like in the filing room, they are open. If a member of the public wants to see a PFA file, it's open.”

Frankhouser on Friday appointed Newcomer as office solicitor. That was a day after Davis and Davis in Uniontown resigned the $100-per-month appointment amid ethics questions regarding Frankhouser's husband, Gary, working as a partner for the firm.

Frankhouser referred questions about her decision to unseal the orders to Newcomer, but she released a prepared statement to the Trib on Wednesday.

She said the orders were sealed to allow time to research confidentiality laws and planned to unseal them if she were advised the policy was incorrect.

“My only concern was to protect victims (plaintiffs) in accordance (with) what I believed was the law,” the statement said, noting she had not completed her research into confidentiality laws when the Trib published stories questioning the policy.

“The subject of confidentiality is convoluted and was not an easy question to obtain a ‘right' or ‘wrong' answer in a speedy manner,” it said. “I was not given the courtesy of much time to resolve these questions.”

She previously said she sealed the orders — restricting access to attorneys, law enforcement and domestic violence service agencies — after returning from a state conference where confidentiality was discussed.

In support of that position, then-solicitor James Davis cited a federal law that he said prohibited the public release of victim information.

Newcomer said his subsequent review of laws governing the release of victim information found the federal restriction applies only to online publication of victims' identities. Paper files are open to public inspection, he said.

“We looked at it a little more closely,” Newcomer said. “There is a difference between accessible information online, and not online.”

Newcomer said a computer database in Frankhouser's office will allow the public to search for abuse orders by defendants' names and case number. The identities of plaintiffs, or those seeking the orders, will not be included in the database, but paper files containing the information and other court documents will be provided upon request.

Melissa Melewsky, an attorney with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, last week said only judges can seal abuse orders. She described the policy to seal them as unconstitutional.

Liz Zemba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or lzemba@tribweb.com.

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