Pennsylvania: House Judiciary Committee approves merit/commission selection for appellate courts with Senate confirmation; con amendment would have to go on a general election ballot

A plan to change the way Pennsylvania’s appellate judges are picked has cleared the House Judiciary Committee, with amendments, earlier this week.

HB 111 of 2017 would amend the state’s constitution to create a merit selection/commission based process.

An Appellate Court Nominating Commission would be created made up of 13 members (8 bar members, 5 non-bar members)

  • 5 appointed by the Governor (4 bar members, 1 non-bar)
  • 2 appointed by the Senate Majority Leader (1 bar members, 1 non-bar)
  • 2 appointed by the Senate Minority Leader (1 bar members, 1 non-bar)
  • 2 appointed by the House Majority Leader (1 bar members, 1 non-bar)
  • 2 appointed by the Senate Minority Leader (1 bar members, 1 non-bar)

The composition of the Commission has been a source of debate for prior iterations of this bill introduced over the last decade and discussed here.

When a vacancy occurs on an appellate court the Commission would submit to the Governor a list of “five of the most qualified individuals”; the Commission would be required in making that list to consider the geographic, racial, ethnic, gender and other diversity of the state. Nominees would also be required to have at least 10 years of legal experience.

The Governor would select from among the list of five names a nominee who would then be subject to Senate confirmation. Under the bill as introduced the Senate would have to give 2/3rds approval; that was amended in committee down to a simple majority.

If the Senate failed to confirm or reject a nominee within a set number of days the person would be automatically confirmed (“the nominee shall take office as if the appointment had been consented to by the Senate.”)

After Senate confirmation, the judge would have an initial term of four years before standing for a yes/no retention election for a full 10 year term.

In addition to amending the Senate confirmation down from 2/3rds to a simple majority, the committee made another key amendment: if HB 111 goes to the voters it must appear on a General Election ballot and not a primary or municipal (spring) ballot.

HB 111 now goes to the full House. If approved by the House and the full Senate, it would have to be re-approved by the 2019/2020 legislature before going to voters.

Pennsylvania: bill making it a misdemeanor to audio/video record in or near a courtroom without judge’s permission clears committee unanimously

A bill that would make it a crime to make an audio or video recording in or around Pennsylvania courtrooms without a judge’s permission has cleared the House Judiciary Committee on a 26-1 vote.

Under HB 149

A person commits a misdemeanor of the second degree if the person in any manner and for any purpose uses or operates a device to capture, record, transmit or broadcast a photograph, video, motion picture or audio of a proceeding or person within a hearing room, courtroom or the environs of a hearing room or courtroom without the approval of the court or presiding judicial officer or except as provided by rules of court…”environs” means the area immediately surrounding any entrance or exit.

The lead proponent notes that existing witness intimidation laws don’t cover such courtroom or near-courtroom recordings.

The 2015/2016 version of the bill (HB 1682) pass the House unanimously with a 200-0 vote, but the Senate never took it up.

HB 149 has been sent to the full House.

Special Edition: Pennsylvania fee/fine/cost legislation in the 2017 session

HB 236 Provides court may, at sentencing, assign an amount not greater than 25% of the defendant’s gross salary, wages or other earnings to be used for the payment of court costs, restitution or fines. Approved by full House 3/20/17.

HB 510

  • Provides a judge shall (currently may) conduct hearing to determine whether defendant who defaults in paying fines, court costs, or restitution is financially able to pay.
  • Provides judge shall (currently may) provide for installment payment plans or community service if defendant unable to financially pay “without causing manifest hardship.”
  • Provides community service is to be credited as $20 per hour against unpaid balance of the fine or costs.
  • Defines “manifest hardship” to mean
    • The defendant is involuntarily unemployed.
    • The defendant’s household income is less than 200% of the Federal poverty level.
    • The defendant is receiving any kind of public assistance.
    • The defendant presents evidence to the judge during the hearing that would cause a reasonable person to believe paying the full amount of the penalty would cause manifest hardship to the defendant or their dependents.
  • Provides maximum monthly payments under installment plans
    • $100 for defendant whose household income is less than or equal to 100% of federal poverty level.
    • $150 if more than 100% but less than 150% of federal poverty level.
    • $200 if more than 150% but less than 200% of federal poverty level.

In House Judiciary Committee.

HB 615 For Vehicle Code violations, provides upon proof defendant is without financial means to pay fine or cost, court may order community service in lieu of payment up to 50% of the original fine or costs. In House Transportation Committee.

Pennsylvania: bill would make it a misdemeanor to audio/video record in or near a courtroom without judge’s permission; 2016 version passed House 200-0

A bill that would make it a crime to make an audio or video recording in or around Pennsylvania courtrooms without a judge’s permission has been refiled for the 2017 session.

Under HB 149

A person commits a misdemeanor of the second degree if the person in any manner and for any purpose uses or operates a device to capture, record, transmit or broadcast a photograph, video, motion picture or audio of a proceeding or person within a hearing room, courtroom or the environs of a hearing room or courtroom without the approval of the court or presiding judicial officer or except as provided by rules of court…”environs” means the area immediately surrounding any entrance or exit.

The lead proponent notes that existing witness intimidation laws don’t cover such courtroom or near-courtroom recordings.

The 2015/2016 version of the bill (HB 1682) pass the House unanimously with a 200-0 vote, but the Senate never took it up.

HB 149 has been filed in the House Judiciary Committee.

NC: So how many other states/courts elect their appellate judges in a partisan manner? It’s complicated.

Amid the debate on SB 4 today and the decision to switch North Carolina’s Supreme Court and Court of Appeals from nonpartisan to partisan races, there’s been a good amount of discussion of how many other states and appellate courts have partisan elections. Numbers have ranged widely. The reason for this is fairly straight forward in that for many states it is not a straight forward answer.

There are 8 states with 9 courts in which at one point or another justices of the supreme court/court of last resort show up with a party label somehow. It was 9 states with 10 courts until 2015 when West Virginia ended partisan races for their Supreme Court of Appeals.

  1. Alabama: partisan primaries and partisan general elections.
  2. Illinois: partisan primaries, partisan general elections but only for the first election. If a person does get elected to the Illinois Supreme Court, the next time they are up they are put into a yes/no retention election, however to stay in office they need to get a 60% “yes to retain” vote.
  3. Louisiana: The state uses a “blanket primary” in which all candidates appear with party labels on the primary ballot. The two top votegetters compete in the general election. Thus in the general election, you could have two Republicans vying against each other for the seat, as occurred most recently in 2016 when Republican James “Jimmy” Genovese defeated fellow Republican Marilyn Castle for the 3rd Supreme Court District (Louisiana elects their justices by district, not statewide).
  4. Michigan: candidates for Supreme Court are nominated by political parties but the actual ballot in November is nonpartisan (i.e. no party labels).
  5. New Mexico: very complicated. When a vacancy occurs on the New Mexico Supreme Court, it is initially filled via merit selection (nominating commission sends list of names to governor, governor picks). The newly appointed justice must then run in a partisan primary and partisan general election but only for the first election. If a person does get elected to the New Mexico Supreme Court, the next time they are up they are put into a yes/no retention election, however to stay in office they need to get a 57% “yes to retain” vote.
  6. Ohio: Partisan primaries, but nonpartisan general elections.
  7. Pennsylvania: partisan primaries, partisan general elections but only for the first election. If a person does get elected to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the next time they are up they are put into a yes/no retention election (50% “yes to retain” to remain in office).
  8. Texas: Everything is bigger in Texas, including their appellate courts. Texas has two “courts of last resort”: the Supreme Court for civil matters and the Court of Criminal Appeals. Both courts use partisan primaries and partisan general elections.

Election 2016: Results and Implications for State Courts

Time to review the 4 ballot items from last night I was focused in terms of affecting the courts.

Mandatory judicial retirement ages

Oregon’s attempt to repeal that state’s mandatory judicial retirement age of 75 failed with only a 37% yes vote. That number is consistent with other states that attempted to raise or remove their ages. Those efforts only received, at best, 40% (New York 2013) and at worst 22% (Hawaii in 2014).

The other attempt was in Pennsylvania. There the proposal on the ballot would have set the mandatory judicial retirement age at 75 but pointedly did not include language that this was an increase from the current 70. The language, which appears to have been unique to Pennsylvania, resulted in the proposal squeaking to victory with 50.88%.

As I’ve noted, this issue is not going away as more and more states look to put in such increases or repeals. The trend remains, however, one in which legislators are persuaded to put the items on the ballots, but voters when confronted with language related to increases or repeals are inclined to reject such efforts.

Judicial Disciplinary Commissions

The Georgia legislature’s attempt to take control over the membership of the Judicial Qualifications Commission was approved with 62% of the vote. This move comes after similar efforts in Tennessee approved in 2010 that give the legislature the power to name 6 out of 16 members of that state’s judicial disciplinary body (Board of Judicial Conduct).

That said, it is unclear whether legislators in other states will have an interest in changes such as those in Georgia and Tennessee, especially given that in 24 states changes to membership would require either a constitution amendment and in another 10 the membership is set by the judiciary, not the legislature.

Clerks of Court Terms

Arkansas’ amendment to increase the terms in office for county officials from 2 years to 4, including Clerks of the Circuit Court, was approved. This leaves only certain counties in North Dakota with clerks of general jurisdiction courts elected to 2-year terms. As such, last night’s vote to increase terms isn’t so much the start of a trend but the end (or near end) of one.

Bail Reform

One additional item not covered but that readers have shown an interest in that relates to the courts is New Mexico’s bail reform constitutional amendment (Amendment 1) that was approved with 87% of the vote. The plan allows judges to deny bail to defendants considered exceptionally dangerous and to grant  pretrial release to those who aren’t considered a threat but remain in jail because they can’t afford bail.

In light of increased interest in reforms to fees, fines, and bail practices in state courts, it is almost certain that some activity in this arena will take place in state legislatures, if not as a constitutional amendment then as legislation focused on pretrial release and risk assessment.

Election 2016: Both Pennsylvania and Oregon were late-adopters of mandatory judicial retirement ages

As I mentioned in prior posts on this subject, many states either came out of the Revolution (like New York’s 1777 constitution), or entered into the Union (like Hawaii when it was admitted into statehood), with mandatory judicial retirement ages.

The states considering revisions to their ages (Oregon and Pennsylvania) are actually in this respect very, very late adopters.

Pennsylvania (193 years)

Pennsylvania has had 5 state constitutions. Of these, only 1 adopted in 1968 and going into effect in 1969 made mention of mandatory judicial retirement ages.

The 1776 constitution made no mention of mandatory judicial retirement. Neither did the 1790 constitution nor the 1838 constitution nor the 1874 constitution.

It was not until 1968 and the adoption of Art. V, Sec. 16(b) that the mandatory age was put in as the result of concerns expressed by members of constitutional convention regarding judges aging into senility (See pages 199-200).

Justices, judges and justices of the peace shall be retired upon attaining the age of 70 years.

This has been effectively amended once since 1969. In 2001 voters approved Amendment 2, allowing for judges to serve out the year they turn 70. That proposal was approved by 67.5% of voters.

Justices, judges and justices of the peace shall be retired on the last day of the calendar year in which they attain the age of 70 years.

Oregon (103 years)

Oregon has had 1 constitution but, effectively, 2 Judiciary Articles. The first (now called Article VII (Original)) was adopted in 1857 and made no mention of a mandatory retirement age. A 1910 revision, called Article VII (Amended), also made no mention.

It wasn’t until 1960 that a mandatory judicial retirement age was worked into the state’s constitution as Article VII (Amended), Sec. 1a. It wasn’t as prescriptive as the Pennsylvania model, instead allowing the legislature to set an age from end-of-year-turns-70 to 75.

Notwithstanding the provisions of section 1, Article VII (Amended) of this Constitution, a judge of any court shall retire from judicial office at the end of the calendar year in which he attains the age of 75 years. The Legislative Assembly or the people may by law:

(1) Fix a lesser age for mandatory retirement not earlier than the end of the calendar year in which the judge attains the age of 70 years