The Senate was active Tuesday in calling for, reviewing, and moving legislation aimed at reforming Pennsylvania’s judiciary.
Whether it’s the looming judicial elections putting a spotlight on the judicial branch, or the recent focus on Justice Michael Eakin’s emails, at least three reform efforts had some type of effort given to them.
The first happened with a press conference held by Senators Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia) and Art Haywood (D-Philadelphia) calling on Justice Eakin to resign while also announcing the introduction of legislation they say will bring increased transparency to Pennsylvania’s courts.
In particular, the senators said they plan on introducing a package of bills amending the Pennsylvania Constitution to reform the composition and conduct of the Court of Judicial Discipline and the Judicial Conduct Board.
They said they will also seek to limit the King’s Bench power and extraordinary jurisdiction of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in disciplinary matters, provide for circumstances of automatic judicial suspensions, and how the Chief Justice of Pennsylvania is selected.
Finally, they proposed amending the Commonwealth Attorneys Act to provide for a vacancy in the Office of Attorney General when there is a “disability” of the attorney general.
“The wolf is watching the henhouse,” Sen. Williams said at the Tuesday press conference. “The court is attempting to police itself and, unfortunately, there are far too many instances where clearly the public does not trust the court to police itself and—more importantly—the outcomes are inconsistent.”
Elsewhere in the Senate, Senate Judiciary Committee Majority Chairman Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery) was trying to revive a proposal he introduced that would create a commerce court in Pennsylvania that would have both original and appellate jurisdiction over business-related cases.
“I think it would help our economy, I think it would help our litigation issues when we are dealing with these complicated business disputes that we have individuals that are there that concentrate, specialize in just this issue,” he said. “We’ve had calls from Delaware afraid that we were going to take their business away from them…it is that important that it gets attention from business and other states that have chancery courts.”
While Sen. Greenleaf acknowledged there is a funding issue with developing the commerce courts, he implored his colleagues to move the concept out of the Judiciary Committee to show Pennsylvania is serious on this issue.
His effort was ultimately in vain, however, as members urged him to hold the bill over until the committee’s first meeting in November so as to give them time to review aspects of the legislation they find concerning.
One particular critic of the legislation was Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming), who said that if businesses want quick resolution with expertise, they have the option of putting arbitration clauses in contracts.
He was also critical of taking the issue out of the general jurisdiction of common pleas judges, whose broad background and experience, he argued, is part of the strength of Pennsylvania’s judicial system.
“There’s no end to the specialization if that’s what we’re going to do, we’re going to keep specializing to the point where every individual type of case in somebody’s opinion is special and we need someone who has expertise in just that area and I don’t think that’s the way to go,” he said.
Lastly, the Senate Appropriations Committee advanced the ongoing effort of Rep. Kate Harper (R-Montgomery) to increase the mandatory retirement age of Pennsylvania judges.
While the current mandatory retirement age is 70, Rep. Harper has sponsored a bill and a constitutional amendment that would increase that retirement age to 75.
Both measures cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee Tuesday with only two negative votes.
The constitutional amendment is on its second passage through the General Assembly in the second consecutive session and—should it pass the Senate—would then go to the voters for their approval or denial of the amendment.
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Judicial reform efforts abound in PA Senate