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Having hosted the Pennsylvania State University Dickinson School of Law for the past 170 years, the residents of Carlisle, Pa., can be excused for feeling a little attached. Or maybe a bit more than a little attached. A proposal to move the J.D. program to Penn State’s main campus in State College, Pa. — 120 miles from its current location in Carlisle — has triggered a lawsuit and action by the Legislature to ensure all future meetings of the board of governors would be open to the public. The fight has been acrimonious enough to launch a potential compromise splitting the law school between two campuses. The trouble started last fall when Phillip McConaughay, dean of the law school, devised the plan to change the school’s location in light of the current deteriorating facilities at the Carlisle campus. He also wanted to diversify the school’s curriculum by using faculty and other resources at the main campus. But local Carlisle residents — fearing the economic consequences that could come with the move — demanded access to meetings held by the school’s board of governors regarding the proposal. Any change to the law school’s location must first be approved by the board, which met privately. The board planned to discuss the move at a Nov. 21 meeting. Attorney Niles Benn, representing Lee publications Inc., which publishes local newspapers, the Sentinel and the Patriot-News, filed a suit in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, to make future board meetings public. Citing the Sunshine Act, a state act requiring government agencies to open their meetings to the public, Benn asked for an injunction to open the initial meeting. He argued that the board was a state agency because it had authority to change certain aspects of the law school, such as location and curriculum. “The law school has a major impact on the community,” said Benn, of York, Pa.’s Benn & Robinson. “The public has a right to know” of any possible changes. However, the injunction was dismissed after the court ruled that it did not have jurisdiction under the act to stop the meeting. Benn filed a new action in January in the Cumberland County Court, which ruled that the meetings should be open. However, the ruling was appealed to the state Commonwealth Court. In April, the court ruled, 3-2, in the law school’s favor that it was not subject to the Sunshine Act because it was an independent entity from Penn State. Lee Publications v. Dickinson School of Law, 848 A.2d 178 2004 Pa. Commw. The case is scheduled to be heard by the state Supreme Court on Sept. 22. But recent action by the Pennsylvania Legislature — in response to protests over the board’s private meetings — could make the lawsuit moot. The Legislature unanimously passed a bill earlier this month requiring open meetings for boards that have advisory powers over state universities or colleges. Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell signed the bill last Thursday. Benn said he would drop the appeal should the board open their meetings to the public. McConaughay asserted that the school has acted openly on the relocation issue, and that future meetings would be subjected to the Sunshine Act. The Dickinson law school, founded in Carlisle, Pa., in 1834, merged with Penn State University in 2000 due largely to a decreasing applicant pool that was devoid of diversity, as well as deteriorating facilities, McConaughay said. However, a compromise has been floated. Last month the board of governors voted to consider a new proposal to have a law program on both campuses, which includes a $25 million facility upgrade on Carlisle and $60 million project at State College. Should the proposal be approved, Penn State would be only the second law school in the country, after Widener University School of Law in Harrisburg, Pa., and Wilmington, Del., to have multiple campuses. The board of governors is expected to vote on the proposal on Aug. 15. If it passes, the university’s board of trustees could vote to approve it in September.

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