Poll of York County Bar Association attorneys rates 2 of 3 judicial candidates as unqualified

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch
York County Judicial Center

Results of a recent poll indicate about half of the York County Bar Association's 470 members found one of the county's three candidates for common pleas judge to be qualified for the job.

For the first time, the bar association didn't handle the poll internally. Rather, York College's Arthur J. Glatfelter Institute for Public Policy conducted it after revising the poll based on community input, according to Director Vinny Cannizzaro.

One of the reasons for the revision was that the institute learned from the community that some people didn't understand the terms used in previous polls, he said.

A total of 263 members completed candidate evaluations, which is 56% of the total bar association membership, a news release from the institute stated.

Suzanne Smith scored an average overall result of 75 out of 100 points, which is a rating of qualified, according to the institute. Candidates needed to score an average overall result of at least 86 points to be considered highly qualified.

Joe Gothie's average overall score was 43 out of 100 points, while Steve Stambaugh's was 32 out of 100. Those scores both fall within the "not presently qualified" rating, according to the institute. Results were released Friday.

The poll focused primarily on professional competence, judicial temperament and integrity, according to The Glatfelter Institute.

The scores: Smith scored 36 out of 50 possible points for professional competence, while Gothie scored 22 and Stambaugh scored 15.

She scored 28 out of 35 possible points for judicial temperament; Gothie scored 16 and Stambaugh scored 12.

Smith scored 11 out of 15 possible points for integrity, while Gothie and Stambaugh each scored 5.

A news release from The Glatfelter Institute that accompanied the poll results stated:

"The judicial evaluation poll is a long-standing community service activity of the York County Bar Association. The poll was undertaken as a public service and not for the purpose of endorsing any specific candidate or any political party. It is not a popularity poll. The results are offered as a resource to the public in determining which candidates are most qualified (to) serve as judges on the York County Court of Common Pleas."

Cannizzaro said the institute is a nonpartisan organization that uses a rigorous process to ensure the data it collects is accurate.

Popularity contest? "It is literally a popularity contest," Stambaugh said on Monday. He noted that a number of current and former York County judges fared poorly in previous bar association polling but went on to make excellent judges.

Current York County Bar Association President Chris Ferro said he believes most of his fellow members "conscientiously consider the questions and their experiences with each candidate" when completing the evaluations.

"I cannot agree that the bar poll is simply a popularity contest or is driven by a specific ideology. I would be personally disappointed if some members allowed their specific support for a candidate, or political party, to affect their responses," he said, adding it "would be unfair and inaccurate to generically criticize the almost 300 responses to this survey as the collective results of favoritism or partisan politics. I think that is painting with too wide of a brush."

He said that as colleagues, York's bar association members are in a unique position to evaluate judicial candidates.

Stambaugh said he's disappointed with the poll's results and noted that although he's a member of the bar association, he's not deeply involved in it, preferring to spend his volunteer time on fundraising efforts by the motorcycle-rider organizations to which he belongs.

Gothie sent The York Dispatch a statement that reads:

"I don't think York County Republican voters are greatly influenced by special interest groups like the bar that are dominated politically by Democrats. York County voters will see my commitment to fairness and due process, upholding our constitutional freedoms, and my 23 years of diverse, accomplished legal experience including many trials in criminal and some in civil court and decide for themselves whether or not I've earned one of their two votes for Judge."

Stambaugh said he agrees the bar association is "overwhelmingly" liberal.

Doesn't track membership: Victoria Connor, CEO of the York County Bar Association, said she doesn't know if that statement is accurate, but noted that the association's president-elect for 2022 is York County District Attorney Dave Sunday, who is a Republican.

"The bar association itself is a nonpartisan organization. We exist to serve the members and the public," she said. "We don't track the party affiliation of our membership … (and) we don't take that into consideration when we are providing services to our members."

Both Stambaugh and Gothie have spoken publicly about being conservative Republicans, and Stambaugh dismissed the idea that they should shy away from that.

"It's a charade to believe people's politics don't affect what they will do on the bench … especially in this day and age," he said.

Smith said she disagrees that judicial candidates should be public about their political opinions.

Also Republican: "I'm a registered Republican — I've told people that if asked. That's not a secret," she said. "But I'm trying to be a nonpartisan candidate because I don't think judges should be partisan."

Stambaugh said it's legally and ethically permissible for candidates to publicly identify with a political party and noted that federal judicial appointments are "always" political.

Smith said she hopes York County voters are "interested in electing a qualified judge."

"Who would be more qualified than lawyers to evaluate other lawyers to determine who is the most qualified to be judge?" she asked.

As to assertions that the poll amounts to a popularity contest, Smith was unconvinced.

"Everyone's entitled to their opinion," she said, and noted she scored "substantially better" than her opponents.

Common pleas judges serve 10-year terms and earn $186,665 a year, according to the Pennsylvania Code.

— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.