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In Pennsylvania, we have the privilege of electing our state court appellate judges. They are not appointed by the Governor, or confirmed by the legislature, in the manner of Federal judges. Federal judge appointments get overwhelming media attention lately, but state court judicial elections, where the people have a direct opportunity to make an impact, are regularly overlooked.
Appellate judges in Pennsylvania judges hear cases after decisions have been reached by a trial court or other tribunal. They determine if an error has been made and, perhaps more significantly, they resolve ambiguities in laws as they are written. If the matter is easily resolved, and the law is clear, it seldom reaches the appellate court because the matter is disposed of at a lower level.
On Nov. 2, there are four open positions for which voters will be determining the new judges. First, there are two positions on the Superior Court. The Superior Court hears appeals from all family law matters (including divorce and custody), all criminal law matters, and many civil cases. There is also an opening for a judge on the Commonwealth Court. The Commonwealth Court decides cases in which some arm of the state, such as an agency or municipality, is a party to the proceeding. The Commonwealth Court has a particular role in deciding how state regulations and our government should function. Finally, there is an open position on the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, which hears secondary appeals from the Superior Court and the Commonwealth Court. The Supreme Court has discretion as to whether or not take these second level appeals. In order for the Supreme Court to agree to hear an appeal, a party requesting the appeal must show the significance of the matter not just to the particular litigants before the Court but to all of Pennsylvania. Thus, it is not an exaggeration to say that every decision of the Supreme Court has an impact on ordinary citizens.
Despite much rhetoric suggesting that appellate judges should “just enforce the law as written,” that is not the nature of their job. They have to apply the law, which is sometimes unclear in the way it has been drafted by the legislature, to particular facts and circumstances. Interpretation of ambiguous language and application of the law to unique factual circumstances are the core functions of these judges. The voters get to make sure that the judges we elect to the bench have the right intellect and temperament to interpret and apply the law.
I encourage all citizens to carefully review the qualifications of the candidates running for our appellate courts. This is an off-year election cycle, with no significant federal positions at stake, and turnout is often low in those situations. I think this is because people don’t quite realize the significance that appellate judges have in their daily lives. Everyone should learn about the judges, come out to vote, and make a reasoned decision on Nov. 2.
Kandice Hull is an attorney based in Annville.