Pennsylvania’s top open records officials say the names of state-level judicial applicants should be available to the public.
Gov. Tom Wolf says they should remain a secret.
The Wolf administration has appealed a ruling by the Office of Open Records directing his office to release to LNP | LancasterOnline all of the applications for a Commonwealth Court seat submitted to his office in late 2019.
“The administration treats the judicial vacancy process like nearly every employer, public and private, manages employment applications,” Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott told The Caucus, a publication of LNP Media Group, last week. “Many applicants understandably do not want their current employers to know that they are seeking employment elsewhere.”
The Office of Open Records ruled in LNP | LancasterOnline’s favor earlier in the fall, stating the records should be released, with personal information such as home addresses and telephone numbers redacted.
While application materials for government employment are exempt, the office found, that exemption does not apply to appointees who would fill a vacancy in elected office and have to be confirmed by the state Senate. The open records office also rejected the administration’s argument that the applications should fall under the exemption for “research, memos or other documents” used for the purpose of internal deliberations.
The coming court battle
Wolf’s decision to appeal sets the stage for a Commonwealth Court battle over records that, if made public, would provide a measure of transparency to a judicial nomination process that has been criticized for being too secretive.
The release of the applications would reveal the names and qualifications of everyone considered in closed-door negotiations for a recent Commonwealth Court vacancy — one that was eventually filled by a longtime top Senate Republican lawyer.
Wolf nominated candidates for four other lower-court vacancies at the same time this fall, and the state Senate confirmed all five on the same day in December with little or no public deliberation on the nominees.
LNP is seeking the applications submitted by those interested in serving on the Commonwealth Court, a statewide appellate court that hears cases against the government. The Office of Open Records sided with the news organization in November.
Wolf’s Office of General Counsel appealed a month later, but, at the same time, it also released to LNP the applications for the governor’s five confirmed nominees. Abbott said releasing information from the successful nominees “balances transparency while respecting the privacy of those not selected or nominated for a position.”
As is tradition for court vacancies in Pennsylvania, the governor and state Senate negotiated behind the scenes until they agreed on the successful nominees. The process makes it nearly impossible for the public to determine whether the nominees were the most qualified candidates for positions that are usually filled by voters.
“Historically, there is an exchange based upon party affiliation — you get one, I get two. You get two, I get three. That’s long been the standard,” Sen. Anthony Williams, a Philadelphia Democrat who has calling for reforms to the process, said during a news conference at the Capitol last month.
Drew Crompton, the Commonwealth Court nominee, served as chief of staff and chief legal counsel to Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati. Some lawmakers, such as Sen. Maria Collett, a Montgomery County Democrat, questioned Crompton’s qualifications and ability to recuse himself from cases in which he may have been involved during his extensive legislative career.
Crompton said repeatedly in interviews and during a confirmation hearing that he would recuse himself when necessary.
What was released
The Wolf administration released 124 pages of applications for Crompton and the four other successful nominees, who were not part of LNP’s request. The other four were Common Pleas court nominees, including three in Philadelphia and one, former Inspector General and interim Attorney General Bruce Beemer, for Allegheny County Court.
The applications included the candidates’ employment histories, legal experience including most significant cases, organization memberships, public statements, political affiliations, potential conflicts of interest and more. Redactions were made for some personal and other identifying information, including the name of the candy company Crompton co-owns with Scarnati.