ALAWSUIT pitting Gov. Corbett against the Associated Press over access to his schedule threatens to eviscerate the power of the state's Office of Open Records, which exists to make government more transparent.
It's yet another example of an administration that came to office promising to change the state's self-protective political culture, but not exactly working to do so.
The case stems from a February 2011 request by AP Capital reporter Mark Scolforo to look at Corbett's schedule and emails since he took office that January.
Corbett's lawyers claimed several areas of exemption from the state's 2008 Right-to-Know Law.
The governor's office released some heavily redacted info in March 2011 but claimed most of the material was exempt.
Administration lawyers said that the requested material reveals deliberations about policy or personnel yet to be decided or, since it could include travel plans, might risk Corbett's "personal security."
(Part of the argument cites the shooting of Alabama Gov. George Wallace in 1972 and the assassination of Louisiana Gov. Huey Long in 1935.)
Among information the governor's office did release are redacted Corbett schedules showing a few meetings in January and February 2011, and some terse, less-than-exciting emails from the governor to senior staff.
One email to press secretary Kevin Harley, asks, "Anything going on (?)"
AP appealed, and the Office of Open Records (OOR) agreed that much of what AP seeks isn't exempt.
OOR Executive Director Terry Mutchler says, "For the last 30 years in states across the U.S., a public official's calendar is one of the basic tenets of open records."
Yet the case dragged on through 2011.
Then Commonwealth Court in June ruled that OOR should conduct an "in-camera," meaning nonpublic, review of the governor's schedule to determine if it really does meet exemption standards.
This is where things get dicey.
The OOR routinely, on its own, as part of its duties, conducts "in- camera" reviews.
But the same court, just weeks after handing the case back to OOR for such a review, issued a new one-page order canceling the in-camera order and granting the governor's office a re-argument of the issue.
That re-argument is scheduled for the court's February session in Philadelphia.
There are two aspects of this case that are chilling in terms of citizen access to government records.
First, if the OOR no longer has authority to conduct in-camera reviews (which is really what this case is now about), it and the Right-to-Know Law become toothless. Politicians and government agencies would provide only that information they want to provide.
The issue, says OOR's Mutchler, is "whether the office and the citizenry take government's word on blind faith."
The second aspect is this: after the AP's Scolforo "won" his case with OOR, which agreed he should get most of what he seeks, the governor's office sued him personally, not AP.
In his case, the AP, the world's largest news-gathering organization, is representing him (though AP higher-ups declined comment on the lawsuit).
But I imagine most citizens, given the time and financial resources required to wage a multiyear legal fight, would walk away from a case such as this, thereby losing even if they won.
This isn't the only time the Corbett administration has gone to court to prevent routine information from being made public.
It is still in litigation over another Right-to-Know case in which it denied citizen requests for government phone numbers and government email addresses of some state employees.
This hard-line legal approach to rebuff access to public records needlessly wastes government resources and further degrades trust in government.
As a self-proclaimed reform candidate and a governor who said in his inaugural address, "We must restore transparency," it's past time for Tom Corbett to follow his own advice.