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Gov. Wolf seeks to fill judge vacancies

Greg Gross
  • There are 30 vacancies statewide
  • Two of the Court of Common Pleas vacancies are in York County
  • There are 15 Court of Common Pleas and 15 district judge vacancies

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf is looking to fill dozens of vacancies in Pennsylvania's court system, including two in York County.

The administration, through the state Office General Counsel, has announced it is accepting applications from candidates to fill 30 open county Court of Common Pleas and magisterial district court seats.

Filling the two vacancies on the 15-seat York County Court of Common Pleas bench would help speed up the judicial process, said Victoria Connor, CEO of the York County Bar Association.

County court officials have for years urged state lawmakers to fill open seats on the bench but to no avail.

There are 15 open seats on Court of Common Pleas benches and 15 vacancies in magisterial district court across the state, according to the announcement. Appointees would serve until the next municipal election, which is in 2017.

Appointments: Appointing judges to fill vacancies in Pennsylvania is somewhat like the process used to fill U.S. Supreme Court vacancies but with less political wrangling.

Governors have the authority to a name judicial nominee, who must then be approved by a two-thirds majority in the Senate. Traditionally the senator who's district covers a large portion of a county with a vacancy has made an appointment recommendation to the governor.

"We are committed to working with the Senate to fill judicial vacancies," said Jeff Sheridan, spokesman for Wolf.  "This is just an internal process the governor set up."

Sen. Scott Wagner, R-Spring Garden Township, has not been in favor of filling judicial vacancies by appointment, saying recommending a nominee to the governor's office is akin to an endorsement process.

York County's vacancies occurred when former judges Thomas H. Kelley VI and John W. Thompson Jr. retired from the bench. Judge Stephen P. Linebaugh also intends to retire in the near future. Another temporary vacancy exists because Judge Craig T. Trebilcock is on active duty with the U.S. Army this year.

Judges are forced to retire at age 70 but a referendum question that will appear on the April 26 primary ballot would allow voters to up the retirement age to 75.

Pennsylvania voters to decide judge retirement age

Process: In order to apply to fill one of the 30 vacant seats, candidates must fill out and submit a 10-page questionnaire by April 15.

From there, a regional advisory commission will review the qualifications of each candidate and will then make a recommendation to Wolf. The appointment would require Senate approval, Sheridan said.

There is no timeline for filling all vacancies. Wolf is also working to fill vacancies in statewide courts.

The York County vacancies have become such a problem that the bar association is in the midst of setting up a judicial evaluation committee to make appointment recommendations to Wolf, Connor said.

"We felt it was something we should seriously consider," she said, adding the association plans to follow through on its plans even in light of the governor's announcement but stands ready to assist Wolf's efforts if requested.

Court of Common Pleas judges serve 10-year terms, and those serving in York County are paid $176,572 yearly. Magisterial district court judges serve six-year terms and are paid $88,290 annually.

— Reach Greg Gross at ggross@yorkdispatch.com.