Pa. appellate court candidates say they’d step aside when campaign conflicts arise
HARRISBURG — Three candidates hoping to join the ranks of Pennsylvania’s appellate courts laid out their priorities and platforms during a debate Thursday at Widener University Commonwealth Law School — the only debate for candidates for the Commonwealth and Superior courts in the Nov. 3 election.
The nine-member Commonwealth Court hears certain appeals and cases brought against the state. The 15-member Superior Court hears appeals from county Courts of Common Pleas. There is one open seat on each court.
Superior and Commonwealth court jurists have 10-year terms and starting salaries of about $191,000.
Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Alice Beck Dubow and Northampton County Common Pleas Judge Emil Giordano are vying for Superior Court. Though the court has not had scandals involving judges, as the Supreme Court has in recent years, both candidates took issue with the Superior Court’s tendency to issue “memorandums of opinions” that are not publicly available. Both said they would push for transparency.
Dubow, a trial judge for eight years who reported nearly $91,000 in campaign contributions last month, emphasized her ethical decisions on and off the bench. On the question of whether campaign donations play a role in decisions, Dubow said she has no trouble stepping aside to avoid any appearance of impropriety.
“If there is an appearance of impropriety and a party (to the case) wants me to recuse, I recuse,” she said. “I want people who are in my courtroom to believe they are getting a fair trial.”
Giordano, a trial judge for 12 years who has about $88,000 on hand, said he recuses himself from any case when a party is uncomfortable with donations to his campaign. Good judges, he said, avoid “legislating from the bench.”
“The courts are being drawn into more and more political issues every day,” Giordano said. “People in this country don’t elect judges for that purpose.”
Running for Commonwealth Court are two Allegheny County attorneys — Republican Paul Lalley of Upper St.Clair and Democrat Michael Wojcik of Fox Chapel. Wojcik, a lawyer at Clark Hill and a former county solicitor, was unable to attend the forum because of scheduling conflicts.
Lalley, a former state Supreme Court clerk and attorney at Campbell Durrant Beatty Palombo & Miller, P.C., never has held elected office. He last reported nearly $164,000 in campaign funds, and Wojcik reported about $49,000.
Campaigning has allowed Lalley to give “30-second civics lessons” on the importance of the judiciary, he said.
“Courts have an obligation to educate people about how their judiciary is structured,” Lalley said.
The Superior and Commonwealth courts often have the last word on cases, said debate moderator Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, an advocacy group for merit selection. The courts issue more opinions than the more high-profile Supreme Court, which chooses cases to hear.
“These judges have to be qualified, fair and impartial, and have integrity and good judgment,” Marks said, “because they sit in judgment of others.”
Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.
She can be reached at 412-380-8511or [email protected].