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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?
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.
Spotlight PA’s 2023 voter guides:
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