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Attorney: Court seal of Halcovage case unjustified

An attorney with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association said the ruling by Lebanon County Senior Judge Robert J. Eby sealing the case files of Schuylkill County Commissioner George Halcovage Jr. regarding the sexual violence protection orders doesn’t pass legal muster.

“The seal order does not contain any indication that it is based on good cause or that the court considered the constitutional requirements for open court. The only justification for sealing found in the order is that the parties requested a seal. That’s not good cause; the parties can’t agree to override the constitution and the access rights it vests in the public. If court files could be sealed upon request, no court files would be public. The constitution requires open courts to promote fairness and so that it’s clear the justice system works the same for everyone to maintain confidence in the court system. The seal order in this case is likely constitutionally infirm and I expect a legal challenge,” Melissa Melewsky, attorney with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said.

In a one-sentence order dated May 5, Eby directed at the request of both parties “the entire record in the within matter be sealed pending further order of this court.”

Eby had released his ruling on the SVPO Wednesday that ordered Halcovage to not “abuse, harass, stalk or threaten” two women who asked a judge for protection. The order also has other prohibitions.

Halcovage was in court Wednesday for a hearing, which the judge says never took place, but resulted in an agreement between Halcovage and the two women identified as Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2. Halcovage admitted nothing, according to the order.

Media representatives were told to leave at the start of the proceedings Wednesday. After more than a 45-minute recess, reporters representing the Times News and The Republican-Herald voiced their objections to the proceedings being closed, citing the importance of the public in it because a public official is involved.

Halcovage has been sued in federal court by four women, all Schuylkill County employees, who have accused him of sexual harassment. Their names are not in the lawsuit, but they’re identified as Jane Doe 1, Jane Doe 2, Jane Doe 3 and Jane Doe 4. Other defendants are also named in the suit.

Paula Knudsen Burke, local legal initiative attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, is representing the Times News and The Republican-Herald in obtaining transcripts of the proceeding. Requests were submitted to the Schuylkill County Prothonotary, court administration court reporter and President Judge William E. Baldwin and the Lebanon County Court of Common Pleas for Eby.

“Court proceedings in the United States are not secret. The public and the press should be excluded only in very rare circumstances. Our organization supports reporters in their efforts to bring information to their readers, particularly about taxpayer and public supported agencies. We will continue to push for reporters’ access on this case,” she said Friday.

County and state leaders have called for Halcovage to resign. State Reps. Jerry Knowles, R-Schuylkill/Berks/Carbon; Joe Kerwin, R-Dauphin/Schuylkill; and Tim Twardzik, R-Schuylkill, introduced a house resolution to call upon the Judiciary Committee to begin an investigation into Halcovage and whether an impeachment or removal from office is required due to alleged misbehavior in office and violation of public trust. Earlier this week, state Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill/Berks, also called for Halcovage to resign.

Courtroom 4 was closed to reporters for the George Halcovage hearing Wednesday. AMY MARCHIANO/TIMES NEWS