“THE PA SUPREME COURT – POLICY-MAKER AND ADMINISTRATOR OF PA COURTS AND DISCIPLINARY ENFORCEMENT FOR ATTORNEYS” Part 5 of the series, “Why do we Elect Judges, and Why Should I Care?” by Barbara J. Shah

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Although it sounds like the PA Supreme Court is the court that makes the final “call” on appeals in PA (and that is technically true), but its duties extend far beyond supervision of the outcomes of appeals decided by PA appellate courts.  The PA Supreme court is one of the oldest courts in the nation, having been established in 1722, when PA was a colony of Great Britain.  The “modern” PA Supreme court was established in 1864. There are 7 judges (called “justices”) on the Court, all elected in partisan elections for 10-year terms, and thereafter are subject to non-partisan “retention” (yes-no) elections by the voter every 10 years.  The current make-up of the court is 5 Democrats and 2 Republicans, three of the Democrats having been elected in 2015.  One seat is up for election this year due to the resignation of Justice Michael Eakin. Currently, interim Justice Sallie Mundy, a justice appointed by the governor and confirmed by the PA legislature after Eakin’s resignation, is serving until the election this November. The salary for 2017 (adjusted annually for the cost of living) for Justices of the PA Supreme Court is $206,054, and they are eligible to participate in PA’s generous defined benefit pension plan.

Although the PA Supreme Court can rule on appeals from the Superior and Commonwealth Courts, their acceptance of appeals is strictly discretionary (except for appeals of death sentences). Statistics published by the Supreme Court indicate that for the years 2008 – 2014, an average of 2,000 requests for appeals were filed each year. The highest number of appeals which the Supreme Court accepted for consideration averaged less than 125, and the number of appeals granted (reversing the ruling of a trial or appellate court) in any year during this period was 52 in 2012.

A substantial portion of the work of PA Supreme Court justices is administrative. Through the AOPC (Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts), they oversee the work of every court in PA, including the district judges throughout the state, Common Pleas and Appellate Courts, and traffic court.  They write and enforce the rules relating to judges’ conduct through the Judicial Conduct Board, and they admit, regulate, and discipline lawyers who practice in PA.  The Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of PA enforces the Rules of Professional Conduct which all PA lawyers must follow, and they administer penalties, including suspension, disbarment, and fines.  If the Disciplinary Board recommends a punishment for a lawyer, the PA Supreme Court handles all appeals and makes the final decision on these punishments – sometimes they even increase the severity of the recommended punishment!  An annual fee paid by lawyers each year is put into a fund to cover client funds mishandled or stolen by lawyers, which is also administered by the Supreme Court.

A little-known fact about the administrative duties of the PA Supreme Court justices is that they write the PA Rules of Civil (and Criminal) Procedure, which provide the framework within which the laws passed by the PA Legislature are enforced, and to make sure that the procedure afforded litigants and defendants by the courts is constitutional.  In a case where there is a conflict between the court rules and the law, the PA Supreme Court has ruled that court rules override the law.  There is a statewide computerized case tracking system for both civil and criminal cases, although for now individual courts of common pleas determine how and whether the court filings in their courts is available to view online.

One of the additional roles of the PA Supreme Court relates to election districts for PA state senate and legislative districts.  PA law does require that they be fairly compact and contiguous, but crafty politicians still manage to gerrymander election districts to favor one party over another.  In PA, not only does the PA Supreme Court determine whether the redrawn election districts comply with the law, they have the power to appoint the chairman of the redistricting commission, which is otherwise divided evenly between the two parties. (This commission does not draw PA Congressional Districts, which are among the most gerrymandered in the nation.)

Dwayne Woodruff, a former Pittsburgh Steelers player and a judge of the court of Common Pleas in Allegheny County for a number of years, is the only Democrat seeking the nomination for Supreme Court Justice in 2017.  He is a person of color and has a history of strong advocacy for juvenile justice; if elected, he would only be the second minority judge elected to any appellate court in PA. Sallie Mundy, the interim justice currently serving, is running as the only Republican candidate for the office.  It seems likely that a substantial amount of money will be spent for the general election this November, since there is no limit on expenditures for judicial races.

Rocked by scandal and the resignation of two justices over the sharing of pornographic emails and videos in recent years, as well as the resignation of one justice after her conviction for public corruption, the PA Supreme Court would surely benefit from a merit-based system of judicial selection (which would require an amendment of the PA
Constitution), but as of now, there appears to be no move in that direction.  Until then, the voting public must rely on the ratings of the state and local bar associations to properly “vet” their choices.  For 2017, Judge Woodruff has been rated as “recommended” by the PA Bar Assn, and Justice Mundy has been rated as “highly recommended.”

 

 

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