HARRISBURG - In a lively 90-minute session, a panel of judges on Wednesday considered the fate of the leader of Pennsylvania's Open Records Office.

But looming larger in this closely watched, likely precedent-setting case is the issue of executive authority over independent agencies.

A seven-member panel of Commonwealth Court heard arguments before a standing-room-only crowd about whether Gov. Wolf acted within his power when, shortly after taking office in January, he removed Erik Arneson as executive director of the Open Records Office.

The office's job, according to its mission statement, is to "enforce the state's Right-to-Know law and to serve as a resource for citizens, public officials, and members of the media in obtaining public records of their government."

Arneson, a top aide to Sen. Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), had been named to the position by Tom Corbett, the outgoing Republican governor, two weeks earlier.

President Judge Dan Pellegrini, who last month, rather than ruling himself, referred the case to the full court, called it "the most important administrative agency case we've had in decades."

Joel Frank of the law firm Lamb McErlane, who represents Arneson, said the 2008 Right-to-Know law's intent was clear: The governor cannot dismiss the director without cause.

He said the head of a quasi-judicial agency that makes determinations on matters involving the governor must be insulated from the whims of an incoming chief executive.

But Pellegrini questioned the argument as a subversion of the governor's power of appointment.

"You could gut the power of the governor, and the election wouldn't matter," he said.

Kenneth Joel of the Attorney General's Office said the law gives a governor authority to remove the agency's executive director at will.

"It's not only legal and constitutionally compliant, there is 60 years of precedent," he said.

Judge P. Kevin Brobson appeared concerned about "political appointees" making decisions about the governor's records.

"What was sold to the public [with the open records law] was that it's different. It's a watchdog."

Arneson has returned to his job in Pileggi's office while he awaits the court's ruling.

Pellegrini did not say when the court would rule on the case.

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