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Who is Judge Jack Panella, and what is judicial retention?

by Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA and Katie Meyer of Spotlight PA |

A voter holds an “I Voted” sticker Nov. 8, 2022, at Memorial Hall in Jim Thorpe Carbon County, Pennsylvania.
Matt Smith / For Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG — Voters this Election Day in Pennsylvania will be asked to consider judicial retentions, including if they want to keep Judge Jack Panella on the bench of the commonwealth’s Superior Court.

After a judge is elected to one of Pennsylvania’s statewide courts, they get a ten-year term and must then go up for retention.

The question of whether to retain a judge is generally a low-profile one, and information about these judges’ records can be hard to find. But it is a process with significant, long-lasting implications. That yes-or-no vote either kicks judges off the bench, or keeps them there for another decade.

These judges have considerable power. The 15-member Superior 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.

So ahead of 2023 Election Day on Nov. 7, here’s the rundown on Panella, who serves as the Superior Court’s president judge and is one of two statewide judges up for retention this year.

Who is Jack Panella?

Members of the Pennsylvania Superior Court as of October 2023.
Courtesy Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts
Members of the Pennsylvania Superior Court as of October 2023. Panella is at center.

Panella, a Democrat, joined the Superior Court in 2003 and is one of the longest-tenured judges on the bench. He had previously served as a judge in Northampton County’s Court of Common Pleas.

In 2018, his colleagues on the Superior Court elected him to be its president judge. During his time on the bench he has authored or co-authored three benchbooks, which aim to help other judges navigate complex legal issues, on sexual violence and restitution.

Panella ran unsuccessfully for state Supreme Court in 2009 in a race that was, at the time, seen as notably combative. Panella’s opponent was Republican Joan Orie Melvin, who was then a fellow Superior Court judge and whose campaign funded ads accusing Panella of failing to appropriately respond to the notorious “kids for cash” scandal as a member of the state Judicial Conduct Board.

The scandal involved judges taking kickbacks to place children in private detention centers. While it did prompt soul searching on the conduct board — and lead to the board’s chief counsel assuming responsibility for badly handling a key complaint — no individual board members, much less Panella specifically, were blamed. The episode ultimately led to changes in board procedures.

Panella in turn accused Melvin of being against abortion rights. Melvin won the election, but was later convicted of misusing state staff on her campaign, sentenced to a felony, and was removed from the bench.

Panella is recommended for retention by the state bar association, which issues nonpartisan reviews of judges' conduct and reputation when they stand for retention on a scale, from “highly recommended” to “not recommended.”

He 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.

In his Q&A with the bar association, Panella wrote that he is pursuing retention because “I believe my judicial skills have never been better, and my legal support team and office staff are excellent.”

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.

More on judicial retention

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.

While there are only two statewide retention elections on the ballot this year, voters may have to weigh in on others for Common Pleas judges depending on where they live.

Courts of Common Pleas are the main trial courts in the commonwealth, and are the first step in most criminal and civil cases. You can see if a judge in your county is up for retention here.

Even more consequential retention votes will be coming up in 2025, when three state Supreme Court justices elected as Democrats will be on the ballot and the balance of the court could flip.

For more on retention, check out Spotlight PA’s full guide on the topic. And for details about Vic Stabile, the other Superior Court judge up for retention this November, read on here.

Spotlight PA’s 2023 voter guides:

  1. Complete guide to the candidates for Pennsylvania Supreme Court

  2. Complete guide to the candidates for Commonwealth, Superior Courts

  3. What to know about the judicial retention questions on Pa. ballots

  4. Complete guide to who is on the ballot, when to vote & more

  5. Interactive tool: Why judges matter

  6. Pa. Supreme Court 101: What it is, why it matters, and more

  7. Pa. Superior Court 101: What it is, why it matters, and more

  8. Pa. Commonwealth Court 101: What it is, why it matters, and more

En Español:

  1. Una guía de los candidatos a la Corte Suprema del estado

  2. Una guía de los candidatos a la Commonwealth y las Cortes Superiores

  3. Elecciones Pa. 2023: Una guía completa sobre quién está en la papeleta, cuándo votar, cómo votar, dónde votar, la emisión de votos por correo y más

  4. Elecciones Pa. 2023: Lo que hay que saber sobre las preguntas de retención judicial en la papeleta de noviembre

  5. Elecciones Pa. 2023: Todo lo que necesita saber para solicitar, llenar y devolver su voto por correo

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