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The Burtner case: Shhhh! Secret!

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Sunday, Oct. 13, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

The public deserves to know as much as possible about a Butler man's federal lawsuit against Pennsylvania State Police over a firearm-purchase denial, whatever its merits. That's why the Trib intervened after both sides filed a joint motion to completely seal the case and why that motion must be rejected.

Jeffrey L. Burtner, 54, maintains he'd had no problem buying firearms until May 24, 2012, when he was kept from buying a hunting rifle. He contends that purchase was denied because state police records erroneously said he'd been involuntarily committed at Butler Memorial Hospital in 1992. The joint motion to completely seal the lawsuit cites medical and mental-health records and other personal information among case filings.

But typically, only those sorts of records are sealed, not a whole case, according to Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association. She also says any settlement in this case can't legally remain confidential because it involves a state agency. Taxpayers do have a right to know how much of their money is spent that way.

As Trib attorney Ron Barber puts it, both sides “agreeing to make the entire lawsuit a secret” is “too much.” Allowing that would violate the principle of openness in government — and foster suspicions about what's being hidden and why.

For all these reasons, the Trib intervened — and U.S. Magistrate Judge Maureen Kelly must not allow this case to entirely evade public scrutiny.

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