Veto New Bill: Incumbency Tool For Judges Election Legislation Appears To Violate State Constitution
Most people in Pennsylvania who come into contact with the criminal or civil justice systems do so at the lowest level, in proceedings before local magisterial district judges.
Those judges play a crucial role, handling minor criminal and civil matters, conducting arraignments and preliminary hearings and setting bail in more serious criminal matters, hearing traffic-related cases and an array of other matters, freeing the common pleas courts for more complex criminal and civil litigation.
The lower courts are meant to be the closest to the people. Their jurisdictions are smaller than the countywide common pleas jurisdiction — Lackawanna County has 10 districts, for example — and the offices and courtrooms are in neighborhoods rather than at the courthouse.
In a bizarre decision Tuesday, the state House voted 128-65 to diminish magisterial district justices’ accountability to their communities while granting them an unfair electoral advantage to extend their incumbency.
The bill eliminates a requirement for sitting magisterial district judges that they have to gather a mere 100 signatures on a petition to be placed on the ballot for re-election, while maintaining that requirement for challengers. Rather, they would simply have to file notice within a given period that they intend to seek re-election. In exchange, they would not be able to challenge in court the legitimacy of signatures on their opponents’ petitions. Magisterial district judges serve six-year terms.
This bill appears to violate the Pennsylvania Constitution, which requires fair and equal elections. Requiring anyone but the incumbent to solicit signatures is not fair and equal.
According to its supporters, the measure is to increase security for magisterial district judges, to prevent them from being harassed or harmed when seeking signatures. But their peril in seeking signatures is no greater than that of any incumbent seeking re-election to a nonjudicial seat, who often catch flack from constituents.
Judges are supposed to be apolitical but the state government persists in requiring them to be politicians in seeking election and re-election. As long as it requires those elections, the Legislature should not be in the business of shielding incumbents from the public. Gov. Tom Wolf should veto the bill.