The odd-year elections in PA, such as this year, 2017, are held to fill many local elective offices, such as school board and municipal officials, but they also include the filling of vacancies in all judicial offices throughout the Commonwealth. These judicial elections are the most problematical for most PA voters, as most voters have no idea what the various judges do, what kinds of cases they handle, why it matters who fills the position, and, most of all, who are all of these people running? What makes them qualified or unqualified, or more qualified than the others? How can I decide who to vote for? Needless to say, voter turnout is usually quite low for these elections.
However, this voter confusion (or apathy) related to judicial elections could (and has) brought about the election of judges who lack judicial temperament, lack skills and knowledge, and who are beholden to the big money interests who donate to their campaigns. Unlike Federal Government judges, which are nominated by the President of the US and confirmed by the Senate after hearings to determine their qualifications and ability, our judges in PA are politicians who run as Democrats or Republicans and are nominated by political party voters in the primary elections held in May, and then run as the nominee of their party for the general election in November. Non-party-affiliated voters cannot vote in the primaries, so they have no voice in the selection of candidates for the general elections.
There are 7 justices of the PA Supreme Court, 15 Judges of the PA Superior Court, 9 judges of the Commonwealth Court, 451 judges of the Courts of Common Pleas (county-level judges), and 517 Magisterial District Judges in PA.
Although Federal judges have a lifetime appointment (unless they are impeached and removed from office for some bad behavior), PA judges other than the Magistrate District Judges and judges of the Philadelphia Traffic Court (called the “minor judiciary” in the PA unified court system) are elected to a 10-year term. Minor judiciary judges are elected to 6-year terms. At the end of their 10-year terms, Common Pleas judges and those of the higher courts do not have to run again in the primary or the general election. The PA Constitution, in a provision added in 1969, permits the voters to simply vote to “retain” or “not retain” that judge in office. Thus if a judge gets a 50% “yes” vote, he or she is retained for another 10 years. This has resulted, according to a study conducted by Professor Larry Aspin of Bradley University in 2009, in a judicial retention percentage of 99.2%
All candidates running for judicial office in PA (other than the minor judiciary), must be lawyers living in PA and licensed in PA, and in good standing with the PA Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court. Candidates for the minor judiciary need only be 21 years of age, have lived in that Magisterial district for 1 year, and to have successfully completed a 4-week course of study given by the Minor Judiciary Education Board, if they are not licensed lawyers. Until PA voters passed a confusingly-worded amendment to the PA Constitution last year, the retirement age for PA judges was 70; the constitutional amendment raised it to 75. After retirement, judges may serve as Senior Judges when appointed by the PA Supreme Court.
Judicial salaries in PA, in addition to paid health insurance, paid staff, and offices paid for by the Commonwealth, are: PA Supreme Court: $206,054 per year, Superior and Commonwealth Court Judges: $194,422, Courts of Common Pleas Judges: $178,868, and Magistrate District Judges $89,438. The administrative judges for each court receive a slightly higher salary. All judicial salaries are adjusted for the cost of living each year.
Judges also are eligible for a special defined benefit pension (DBP) at age 60 with 3 years of service or at any age with 35 years of service: 100% of their final salary, plus paid health benefits, and 50% survivorship benefits for their spouses. Although the PA Legislature attempted to convert this amazing pension benefit into a Defined Contribution plan (DCP) (like an IRA, as it has done with other new employees in the commonwealth’s employee retirement system), the PA Supreme Court ruled (yes, ruling on its own pension) that the legislature could not convert the PA Judges’ DBP to a DCP.