The Western District of Pennsylvania charges a $10.50 “discovery fee” for public requests for court records, a fee that open records advocates say adds an unusual and unjustified financial barrier to constitutionally required access.

Between May 2021 and May 2022, Washington County collected $1,026.50 in fees, according to a Right-to-Know response obtained by Spotlight PA.

Among the people who paid were local journalists and people involved in criminal cases.

Open records experts told Spotlight PA that they know of no other county in Pennsylvania with such a fee. Eric Feder, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Prothonotaries and Court Secretaries, said as much, but noted that the association does not officially track such information.

Washington County officials in an interview gave unclear justifications for the charges.

Clerk of Court Brenda Davis said the search fees her office charges were set before she took office in 2020. Davis, who fought openly with county commissioners regarding fees and fines under the Alternative Sentencing Program, and who has been sentenced to 15 days of arrest district judge for refusing to turn over juvenile files from her office, said she couldn’t justify the fee.

Davis also said she could not remove or change it, a claim contested by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC), which oversees Pennsylvania’s district courts.

Melissa Melewski of the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, a trade group that represents media outlets across the state, including Spotlight PA, called the fee “problematic” and “at odds with the requirements” established in public access policy governing the district courts of Pennsylvania.

Section 6 of the policy, which was imposed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, clearly defines the fee that court clerks can charge for copies of court records – up to 25 cents per page – but says nothing about a search fee, which covers the administrative task of finding such records. (Washington County charges both.)

“There is a comment in Section 6 that states that ‘reasonable fees’ may be charged, but what that actually means, who determines validity and how a complaint can be filed, is not addressed in the policy,” Melewski added.

AOPC, the administrative arm of the state Supreme Court, is chaired by high court appointee Jeff Moulton. The AOPC has taken the position that it and the Supreme Court are limited in their ability to enforce state public access policies, at least as far as independently elected judicial clerks are concerned.

In a phone conversation with Spotlight PA, an AOPC spokesperson used the phrase “separation of powers.” The department refused to clarify the details.

Melevsky would like the court to explore the issue further: “I would say that it is reasonable to conclude that if a court has the power to impose a rule governing access to court records, it also has the power to enforce it, even if that power is not expressly written in the policy,” she said.

Bruce Ledewitz, a law professor at Duquesne University and an expert on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, agreed. “It is not true that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court could not order the clerk of court to make the information available without charge,” he said when a challenge to such a charge was brought to court and found credible.

“District attorneys are independently elected, but there are a million rules governing what they must do, issued by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.”

Washington District Court Administrator Patrick Grimm said the search fees collected by Davis are deposited monthly into the county’s general fund, a key source of revenue for her office, and “are not segregated … or earmarked for anything other than use by the county for general operations . He declined to answer additional questions through an AOPC spokesman in Harrisburg.

Melevsky believes the search fee is excessive because the administrative costs associated with fulfilling records requests are already supported by taxes and copying fees that more than pay for the raw materials.

But the options members of the public have to challenge access fees, like in Washington County, are directly proportional to their affluence, Melewski explained, which is the main reason many are overlooked and ignored.

“People can opt out, but the state’s public access policy doesn’t have an appeals process,” she said. “It was necessary to go to court. Most likely, you will have to hire a lawyer and continue the legal process. And this is a time-consuming and costly process.”

90.5 WESA is partnered with Spotlight PA, a reader-funded collaborative newsroom dedicated to producing responsible journalism for all of Pennsylvania. Read more at