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House votes end to district judge re-election petition rules

October 10, 2018

HARRSIBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania lawmakers voted Wednesday to repeal the requirement that incumbent district judges must collect signatures when running for re-election, a measure prompted by security concerns.

The House voted 128-65 to eliminate the need for sitting district judges to collect 100 signatures to qualify for the ballot if they want to seek another six-year term.

They would instead simply file a certificate they are running for another term. If they do, they may not challenge the nominating petitions of other candidates.

District judges set bail, preside over lower-level criminal and civil matters and preliminary hearings for more serious charges. They do not have to be lawyers, and many are former police officers.

Representatives opposed to the bill characterized the safety issues as overblown and said it would not be fair to exempt incumbents from signature rules that challengers must follow. The vote was an unusual instance of both the Democratic and Republican caucuses being divided — it passed the Senate unanimously in June.

“Ask yourself, how many of you have encountered some sort of hostility gathering nominating petitions?” said Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware. “I certainly have. That is not a valid reason.”

The bill is headed to Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, whose office said Wednesday he planned to review it and decide whether to support it or veto it.

Rep. Steve McCarter, D-Montgomery, cited examples of district judges being harangued while seeking petition signatures, and said many judges have reported “hostile, frightening behavior,” and some physical harm.

“It can be dangerous, in contrast to what some people have suggested,” McCarter argued.

Opponents said the bill violates the state constitution’s requirement that elections be fair, and some predicted the measure would be overturned by the courts if it becomes law.

“This is subverting the election process in favor of incumbents,” said Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Allegheny.

But Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-Cambria, said there was no constitutional need for absolute equally, noting the state allows unlimited campaign contributions, and that other states have early voting but Pennsylvania does not.

“The bottom line is, we make these rules,” Barbin said.

Rep. Brad Roae, R-Mercer, said members would think it was unfair if lawmakers voted to exempt incumbents from filing fees, and argued that having two sets of petition rules are an analogous inequity.

The risk of violence is a real one, said Rep. Dom Costa, R-Allegheny, a former police chief.

“In this age of craziness out there, people think nothing of using deadly force or bodily injuries to get their points across,” Costa said, noting the DJs, as they are commonly known, handle domestic violence matters and civil cases.

“They need our protection,” Costa said. “There is no reason to risk someone’s life or their bodily safety over 100 signatures.”

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