(288) Sunday, October 16, 2016 – Pennsylvania was once known for the quality of its judicial system.
At least that is the claim of Peter F. Vaira, a respected former U.S. Attorney from Philadelphia.
Today, this branch of state government could more aptly be branded as a “good ole boy legal system,” similar to what ruled southern states through the first half of the last century.
Voters are asked at the November 8 election to approve a constitutional revision that would permit judges on our state and county courts to serve until they are age 75. The current mandatory retirement age is 70.
There is a subplot to this story, however.
Voters rejected the same question in the April primary, albeit by a small margin.
That should have been the end of the issue.
With some Democrat help, the Republican legislative leadership, decided they weren’t going to be deterred by lowly voters. After all, gerrymandering taught us we don’t pick our lawmakers, they pick us.
Pennsylvania is not a referendum state. We don’t get to vote on many issues like in some states. This keeps control in the hands of politicians.
If retirement remains at 70, some 19 judges statewide will be required to quit at this year-end and another 28 on December 31, 1917. One of the 19 for this year is Thomas G. Saylor, a Republican and Chief Justice of the PA Supreme Court.
Democrats have won the last three contested seats on the state’s highest court and would likely be favored next year if Saylor is forced to retire.
When the referendum was defeated this spring, Saylor may have started to pack his bags. That’s when the Republican legislative leadership came up with this scheme.
The question on the ballot in the Primary was improperly worded, they said and, not surprising, the courts refused to overturn this action. In pushing the legislation through to hold a second referendum on the same subject in the same year, the GOP claimed voters needed to be informed that the current retirement age is 70. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, went along with the idea.
This cabal claims we may have voted under the mistaken impression that there was no prior required retirement age. Never mind that no poll has been published to support this logic.
Vote again on November 8 and, this time, get it right, politicians tell us.
Confusion could be present. There is no mandatory retirement age in the Federal judiciary.
In Pennsylvania, judicial salaries are around $185-200,000 and go up every year with a cost-of-living raise. Few Americans have a better benefits package than a Pennsylvania judge.
PA judges, numbering about 500, must compete to win their first ten-year term. Thereafter, they past a “yes-no” retention test for another ten-year hitch. Judges rarely get booted out of office and rarely is one overworked.
Circumstances this good still don’t encourage self-policing. Examples of improper behavior, unfairness, dishonesty and self-enrichment are never exposed by other judges.
Instead, Mr. Vaira writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “there is solid evidence that, for several years, prosecutors in the Attorney General’s office were sending “ex parte” communications to judges they regularly appeared before.” Some of those messages were the infamous pornographic emails that former Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s office inherited when she took office, but then muffed the handling.
Porn emails figured in the resignations of two Supreme Justices.
Seats on county Courts in Central Pennsylvania almost always follow prior service as a prosecutor, such is the fraternity. Other close relationships have existed among members of the bar and bench in Philadelphia and Allegheny.
Transcripts of grand jury proceedings leading to the indictment and conviction of Penn State grid coach Jerry Sandusky for child molesting showed the judge frequently addressing the prosecutor by first name.
Major scandals such as “kids for cash” in Luzerne County went on for years until public pressure forced the Supreme Court to react.
Bottom Line: Pennsylvania judges need to regain respect for their branch of government. This “see-no-evil, hear-no-evil” atmosphere should not be rewarded by another five years on the bench.
Vote “No” on the constitutional amendment that would enable them to be at the public trough five years longer.
Disclosure: The writer worked for rural Western PA courts for more than two decades and can recall no incidents of improper conduct with these judges. One told me he is sad about the conduct of some of his brethren to the east and on appellate courts. Obviously, the majority of PA judges take their responsibilities seriously.