York County's Court of Common Pleas will soon be down two judges and, despite a growing number of criminal cases, the positions could be open until 2016.
President Judge Stephen P. Linebaugh said he has asked Sen. Mike Waugh, R-Shrewsbury Township, to start the process of appointing judges to fill vacancies left by Judge Sheryl Ann Dorney, who retired at the end of July, and Judge Penny L. Blackwell, who will retire Jan. 6.
The process requires Waugh to present nominees to Gov. Tom Corbett, who would then have to announce the candidate as his nominee and forward the person's name to the state Senate. The Senate must confirm the candidate by a two-thirds majority, said Department of State Deputy Press Secretary Matthew Keeler.
Waugh said Wednesday the odds are "about 50/50" that he'll move forward with the appointments, which he described as "a long process" which requires the support of both parties in the Senate and "takes some doing to get it to happen."
The senator said there's a "handful" of candidates who want to talk with him about the positions, but it will be at least a couple of months before he would start. He's hoping he can at least make the case for one new judge, he said.
The process: If Waugh doesn't start the appointment process, the positions won't be filled until after voters elect people to the seats during the November 2015 election. In that scenario, the new judges wouldn't take their seats until in January 2016.
The judgeships are up for election in 2015 even if people are appointed. Appointees would have to run for the full 10-year term on the bench if they wanted to retain the seats.
Dorney's seat alone could be vacant nearly a year until the position is filled, even if Waugh does start the appointment process.
The most recent appointment of Judge Michael Flannelly, who has since lost an election bid to former Rep. Todd Platts, took several months. Judge Chuck Patterson unexpectedly died Nov. 21, 2011, and it was June 2012 before Waugh forwarded Flannelly's name and Corbett announced Flannelly as the official nominee.
It took another few weeks for the Senate to confirm Flannelly, and he wasn't sworn in until July.
Growing caseload: The vacancies aren't welcome news to Linebaugh, who said he has tried to express the urgency and the need to fill at least one vacancy soon.
"We would like to have both positions filled, but if that one position was filled, that would make a tremendous difference," he said. "It's very, very difficult for us to deal with two vacancies."
York County has 14 judges -- including Blackwell and Linebaugh -- and three senior judges who may or may not be able to hear cases in York on any given day. Their schedules are more flexible, and they can be assigned anywhere in the state. It has been more than two years, for example, since Judge Michael J. Brillhart heard a case in York, Linebaugh said.
Clerk of Courts Don O'Shell said last month that his office filed 9,226 criminal cases in 2012, up from 7,974 in 2011, and 7,630 in 2010. Year to date through the middle of November, there had been 8,045 criminal cases, and the county is expected to exceed 9,000 cases again this year, he said.
Linebaugh said it will be difficult to adequately handle all of those criminal cases and, other than himself, there are no judges assigned to civil cases next year.
"The cases that are going to be delayed or not heard starting next year if we don't get some help are the civil cases," he said.
Lawsuits between businesses could take longer, as could divorces, contract disputes, and personal injury and medical negligence cases, he said.
Linebaugh, who was sworn in as president judge in January 2001, said he will retire from the bench at the end of his five-year term, at the beginning of 2016.
"If I meet all the goals I set out to accomplish, maybe I'll retire early, but that's unlikely," he said.
Bob Wilson, who chairs the county's Republican party, said he knows of several Republicans who are angling for a bench appointment, but he declined to name them because none have made official public announcements.
"The party plays zero role in the recommendation," he said. "I don't see an appointment happening anyway, regardless. Two openings on the bench is not necessarily a hole. Although there is a gap in what we're able to do in regards to caseload, there are other counties out there that have larger gaps in their seats, and those counties haven't been appointed."