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Wolf regime hasn’t grasped transparency

A panel of Commonwealth Court judges says “applications for individuals hoping to fill judicial vacancies should not be kept secret under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law,” reported Sam Janesch of The Caucus, an LNP Media Group watchdog publication focusing on state government.

“Upholding two decisions by the state’s top open records officials from late 2019 and early 2020, the judges rejected arguments from Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration and said his lawyers must move forward with a process to release judicial applications” to LNP Media Group.

Janesch noted that judicial “appointments — made by the governor and approved by the Senate when a vacancy occurs — have come under scrutiny for their “traditionally secretive process.”

The Commonwealth Court is one of two statewide intermediate appellate courts.

The Caucus wrote this in an editorial in January 2020 and it still applies: “For a governor who has made transparency a priority of his administration, this battle over judicial applicant names is mystifying. And shameful.”

We are simply perplexed by Gov. Wolf’s stubbornness on this issue. It seems crystal-clear to us that the name of someone seeking an appointment to the state judiciary ought to be made known to the citizens of the commonwealth.

Candidates who run for judicial seats cannot do so secretly. Their names are necessarily stated plainly on the ballot.

Those who throw their hats in the ring to fill a judicial vacancy also should expect for their names to be made public.

If they don’t want their current employers to know they’re eyeing the exit, they shouldn’t ask to be considered for a judicial vacancy.

Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, agreed. And she made this excellent point to Janesch: “When public officials step into the shoes of voters to fill an elected office, transparency is crucial to maintaining the public trust and confidence in both the appointee and the public officials tasked with making the appointment.”

This is exactly right.

The right of a judicial candidate to privacy simply does not outweigh the public’s right to know who might land on the Pennsylvania bench.

The secrecy-shrouded process of filling judicial vacancies allows for potential abuses of the system, for back-room deals and exchanges of favors.

As Janesch reported, LNP Media Group sought the application materials for all open judicial seats when Gov. Wolf and Senate Republicans last went through the process — in 2019.

“The governor’s Office of General Counsel ultimately released 124 pages of applications for the five individuals who were quickly nominated and approved — including one for the Senate Republicans’ top lawyer who was appointed to Commonwealth Court,” Janesch reported. “The administration continued to shield the names of all others who applied, arguing applicants should be treated like anyone else seeking government employment.”

This is ridiculous. Applying for a judicial vacancy — normally filled by an election — is not the same as applying for a government staff job.

In a separate request, LancasterOnline reporter Carter Walker sought applications specific to a vacancy in the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas created at the end of 2019. Wolf never nominated anyone for that seat and strangely refused to release the names of those who had applied for it. Was the governor afraid those applicants would be embarrassed that no one was appointed in the end? Was he worried that we’d learn that a qualified candidate had been derailed by politics?

In the vacuum left by secrecy, speculation can run wild. And the perception of Pennsylvania judges as political — a perception that undermines trust in the judiciary — only grows.

Melewsky emphasized that state election law provides “a clear roadmap” in that the expectation of privacy for those seeking elected office is “significantly diminished” compared to other government employees.

She also told Janesch that the case has “potentially wide impact.” We hope it does.

Secrecy and government are a terrible and toxic mix that harms citizens most of all, but also, ultimately, government itself.

— Lancaster Newspapers

OUR VIEW

Same rule should apply

The above editorial highlights yet another instance in which candidate names for an elected office were not released to the public.

We find it interesting that a Rule of Judicial Administration adopted in October 2019 by the state Supreme Court apparently does not cover this. The Rule says names of candidates being considered by a Common Pleas Court to fill a vacancy shall be made available to the public upon request.

The difference is that judicial appointments are made by the governor and approved by the Senate.

The adoption of the Rule of Judicial Administration followed a long battle by the Sun-Gazette to get a list of candidates for an appointment to a vacated Lycoming County commissioner seat.

We saw its adoption then and continue to see it now as a victory for transparency.

It is unfortunate that the same Rule of Judicial Administration does not apply to higher state officials when they are tasked with judicial appointments.

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