Pennsylvania’s Judicial System has had its share of gaffes, indiscretions and ethical lapses over the past decade; now a new, questionable, and potentially damaging imbroglio is coming to roost, over of all things: The age of sitting judges.
What difference does it make if a presiding judge is say 70, 75 or over 80? Its not like these, men and women garbed in black are flying commercial jets or being dispatched to fight in Libya.
“This is a very serious matter,” said Tim Potts of Democracy Rising.
Potts and Rock The Capital’s Eric Epstein have discovered that Superior Court Judge Stephen J. McEwen Jr. has broken the law, and in doing so, has opened a Pandora size box of issues that directly or indirectly affect all Pennsylvanians.
Based on Judge McEwen’s own records, he turned 78 years old last October, making him too old in the eyes of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court to serve past December 31, 2010. That is the law of the state as set by the supreme court.
McEwen’s career in law started in the 1960′s. According to his bio, he has been a district attorney, twice appointed to the state supreme court’s – board of judicial inquiry and review; he has served on the superior court off and on since 1981. His current title is that of a senior judge which he has held since 2003, but even that affords him no extra time under current law.
“I have never heard of a situation like this,” said Chris Bonneau, a professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh.
Epstein said he hates that the primary issue is based on age, but there is more to this than one judge serving past his time.
Epstein estimates McEwen has issued rulings in over 100 cases since January, and that gives litigants grounds on which to appeal.
“Not only does this call into question the status of every case in which Judge McEwen participated,” Epstein said, “but it makes it untenable for him to serve as the Supreme Court’s appointee to the Legislative Reapportionment Commission.”
The commission is tasked with drawing up fair, and objective voting districts.
Following Supreme Court Justice Ronald Castille’s appointment of McEwen two weeks ago, House Democratic Leader Frank Dermody said, “Judge McEwen’s reputation is solid and his long tenure on the Superior Court was excellent preparation for this special task, which requires knowledge of the entire state and its many regions.”
Representative Dermody is, for now, not having seconds thoughts about his statement. According to Press Secretary Bill Patton, Dermody is waiting to hear how PA’s Supreme Court will handle the issue.
Judge McEwen is not talking. His secretary told us to call The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts for information. AOPC has not returned our calls.
Justice Castille has only until next Wednesday to withdraw McEwen’s appointment from the Reapportionment Commission.
McEwen’s age has opened up the kinds of inquiries the court system is not used to answering to such as, what criteria is used to appoint judges, why do age limits governing the terms of judges often change?
Potts says McEwen’s age, underscores that Pennsylvania still has a “conspicuously broken system.”
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