Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan, and nonprofit newsroom producing investigative and public-service journalism that holds the powerful to account and drives positive change in Pennsylvania. Sign up for our free newsletters.
HARRISBURG — Near the bottom of this year’s general election ballot, Pennsylvania voters will be asked simple questions with long-term consequences.
Depending on where they live, voters will decide whether at least two state judges should “be retained for an additional term” of 10 years.
All state judges — from those who preside over municipal courts to the justices of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court — initially run in partisan races. Once elected, the judges on Pennsylvania’s powerful appellate and Common Pleas courts serve 10-year terms — often holding their seats for decades with little notice.
Retention elections, Pennsylvania's process for keeping those judges in their positions, are a big part of the reason why.
Table of Contents
What is a judicial retention election?
Under the state constitution, appellate and Common Pleas judges serve 10-year terms after winning partisan elections and then must seek subsequent terms in retention elections.
These incumbent judges do not face opponents. Rather, voters make a yes-or-no choice, in which a majority yes vote allows the judge to serve another decade.
Pennsylvania is one of 11 states that uses retention elections to confirm a new judicial term, and these races normally attract little media attention. Voters almost always approve subsequent terms for appellate judges by double-digit margins.
Since 1968, when the state’s constitution was last updated, voters have rejected only one appellate judge’s reelection bid.
That was in 2005, when voters were broadly frustrated with state lawmakers’ vote to increase their own salaries and those of judges. Former state Supreme Court Justice Russell Nigro was up for reelection that year, and while he had nothing to do with the pay hike, he lost his bid for retention amid a widespread culling of incumbents.
If a judge loses their retention race, a special election is held to replace them in the next odd year. The governor can appoint a replacement in the interim, but two-thirds of the state Senate must approve the choice.
Who is running for retention in 2023?
Depending on where you live, you may be asked to consider approving a new term for a Common Pleas judge. Courts of Common Pleas are the main trial court in the state, the first step in most criminal and civil cases.
You can see if a judge in your county is up for retention here.
Voters will be asked to consider additional 10-year terms for two appellate judges who sit on Superior Court.
The 15-member court is the first stop for appeals on most criminal and civil cases in the commonwealth, and its precedents impact anyone who interacts with the criminal justice system.
The retention votes of 2025 will be even more consequential, as three state Supreme Court justices elected as Democrats will be on the ballot.
That court has the final say on all cases in the state, and it often delivers far-reaching decisions on weighty topics such as election law, abortion, redistricting, and executive power.
Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court has had a Democratic majority since 2015, when a retirement and two resignations opened up three seats at once. Amid a wave of political spending by trial lawyers and unions, the three Democratic candidates — now Justices Christine Donohue, Kevin Dougherty, and David Wecht — swept the election.
Since then, the court has tossed the state’s congressional map as an unconstitutionally partisan gerrymander, given voters three extra days for their mail ballots to arrive amid postal delays, and allowed a suit challenging the constitutionality of state education funding to go to trial, among other significant rulings.
Operatives in both parties widely expect that race to become a big money battle with control of the court at stake.
“There are people chomping at the bit to vote one or all three of those 2015 Democratic babies off the bench,” said GOP political consultant Christopher Nicholas.
>> READ MORE ELECTION 2023 COVERAGE FROM SPOTLIGHT PA:
The records of the Superior Court judges up for retention
As with all judicial elections, finding information on the candidates is tricky because they tend to receive little public attention.
Panella and Stabile are recommended for retention by the state bar association, which issues nonpartisan reviews of judges' conduct and reputation when they stand for retention, along with recommendations for first-time candidates.
Before his election to the court, Panella served as a judge in Northampton County’s Court of Common Pleas. He ran unsuccessfully for state Supreme Court in 2009. In 2018, his colleagues on Superior Court elected him to be the president judge.
Panella has “an excellent reputation for high moral character, integrity and professionalism" and “his legal opinions are well-written and well-reasoned,” the bar association wrote in its recommendation.
Notable recent opinions from Panella include one that upheld a more than 1000-year sentence against a man convicted of long-term child molestation whose attorneys had argued he had dementia; one that found people who steal money from nonprofits aren’t shielded from having to pay restitution; one allowing a Pittsburgh dentist to file an insurance claim due to losses incurred during pandemic closures; and a decision to vacate decade-old gun and drug charges against rapper Meek Mill.
Stabile served as Cumberland County GOP chair before running for Superior Court in 2011, losing his first bid but prevailing two years later. In its recommendation of him, the bar association wrote that he “is highly regarded by his peers and is described by lawyers and judges alike as having a positive judicial temperament and broad legal knowledge.”
In some of his recent high-profile decisions, Stabile reinstated charges against an engineer in a deadly Amtrak crash on procedural grounds; dissented in a decision that found Uber had not met the legal bar for requiring users to waive jury trials (again on procedural grounds); and wrote an opinion upholding a misdemeanor child endangerment conviction for former Penn State President Graham Spanier in relation to Jerry Sandusky’s child abuse.
BEFORE YOU GO… If you learned something from this article, pay it forward and contribute to Spotlight PA at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.