At least three candidates with significant legal experience applied in 2019 to fill a vacancy on one of the state’s two highest appellate courts, but Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf instead tapped a well-connected lawyer for the Republican caucus in the Pennsylvania Senate.
Those unsuccessful candidates have come forward or been identified for the first time as The Caucus and LNP | LancasterOnline wage an ongoing legal battle to obtain records in what has traditionally been a highly secretive process that critics say is prone to behind-the-scenes deal-making.
Tuan Samahon, Villanova Law School professor.
Michael R. Dimino, Widener University Commonwealth Law School professor.
Lourdes Sanchez Ridge, former Pittsburgh solicitor and current partner at Pietragallo Gordon Alfano Bosick & Raspanti.
The trio of unsuccessful candidates is among an unknown number of people who applied for the vacancy. At least one additional person applied but is disputing a court ruling from earlier this year in favor of the news organization to disclose the candidates’ names.
One of the candidates is openly criticizing the process that led to the selection of Drew Crompton, the Senate lawyer who also was a longtime chief of staff and political adviser to former Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati.
“It was a political deal. It was a fake merit process,” said Tuan Samahon, a professor at Villanova Law School and an applicant who stepped out of the shadows recently to denounce the lack of openness. “It was wired up from the start for Drew Crompton.”
Wolf announced a slew of nominations for open seats, including Crompton for the appellate court, in the fall of 2019 after private negotiations with legislative leaders. It is widely believed in Harrisburg that Crompton was the centerpiece of a deal between Wolf and Senate Republican leaders that netted Democrats a handful of Philadelphia Common Pleas judge appointments and one in Pittsburgh.
Meanwhile, the public had no idea there were other candidates for the vacancies, much less anything about their credentials.
The governor, as he and others had done in the past, did not release the names, leaving the public unable to vet the applicants, who serve in the positions temporarily before deciding whether to run in the next election. Crompton, for example, has served on the court now for 18 months and is the Republican nominee for the upcoming November election to serve a full 10-year term.
“The bottom line: It was a waste of time for the candidates,” said Samahon, a political independent who teaches civil procedure, federal courts and constitutional law.
Asked if his appointment was the result of a political deal, Crompton said in a text message, “I had nothing to do with the confirmation process except I told all the senators I was willing to meet with them individually if they wanted to sit down one-on-one after my nomination, as is the norm with every nominee. I was gratified by the 42-7 (confirmation) vote.”
‘Broad, positive impact on transparency’
The Commonwealth Court in February set the stage for information on the judicial vacancy process to be released by the governor’s lawyers.
The three-judge panel upheld two decisions by the Office of Open Records in favor of The Caucus and LNP|LancasterOnline, which sought the application materials for anyone who applied to the governor’s office for the Commonwealth Court seat. Both The Caucus and LNP|LancasterOnline are published by LNP Media Group.
The administration had previously released 124 pages of applications for the five individuals Wolf actually nominated, including Crompton. But it refused to release the others, claiming the applications should be treated like other private personnel materials.
After court arguments, the judges ruled in favor of the news organizations, saying the law distinguishes between regular government employees and public officials, such as gubernatorial appointees, who would in normal cases seek those spots through an election.
The decision has the potential to give the public more information about applicants for future state-level vacancies in elected office and even local government appointments for positions such as school board directors or township supervisors, said Melissa Melewsky, media law counselor for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.
“I think it’s a broad, positive impact on transparency in government,” Melewsky said.
While the ruling itself indicates future judicial appointments will be more transparent, a handful of Democratic state senators also introduced a bill that would require the governor to release the names and applications for a 30-day public comment period before making a nomination.
“Our judicial system needs to be fair, and part of that fairness is avoiding the appearance of impropriety,” said bill sponsor Sen. Lindsey Williams, an Allegheny County Democrat who did not support Crompton’s nomination. “The current system of choosing judicial nominees in backroom deals instead of transparently further erodes the trust in our judiciary and even our democracy.”
Information trickling in
The governor’s Office of General Counsel has not yet provided the records, but is redacting some private information in the candidates’ applications, including details about past clients, with direction from the Office of Open Records.
The letter identifies Lourdes Sanchez Ridge as one of the former Commonwealth Court applicants who wanted to make such redactions about her past cases. Sanchez Ridge, a former federal prosecutor, served as Pittsburgh city solicitor and chief legal officer before stepping down in 2018 to become a partner at a Pittsburgh law firm. She has also served on the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs and says she is unaffiliated with any political party.
Asked if she felt disheartened by the outcome of the process, Sanchez Ridge said, “I did.”
“Many of us were raised to believe you get ahead on merit. I was qualified,” Ridge Sanchez said. “I’m not judging the nominee’s qualifications.”
Both Samahon and Sanchez Ridge say they were interviewed by phone as opposed to in-person at the Capitol. Two lawyers from big law firms asked him questions, Samahon said.
“There were very few questions,” Sanchez Ridge said.
“It was dressed up as merit but was a political deal,” Samahon said.
Asked if she would apply again for a judicial opening, Sanchez Ridge said, “I’m done after this.”
Besides Sanchez Ridge and Samahon, another candidate for the Commonwealth Court position was Michael R. Dimino, a professor at the Widener University Commonwealth Law School. Dimino has also taught at several other universities and is an election law expert. He did not return a request for comment.
At least one other candidate was in the running for the position Crompton was appointed to, according to the Office of General Counsel letter.
Identified only as “Candidate A,” the individual is, despite the court ruling, continuing to argue that the application is not a public record. The anonymous candidate wrote about their right to privacy, arguing that only those selected by the governor for an appointment officially become candidates for public office.
“Disclosure of the identities of the applicants may embarrass the applicants,” the person wrote. “Moreover, applicants may have not disclosed his/her application to a current employer. Public disclosure could potentially have harmful consequences for an unsuccessful applicant’s future employment and/or promotions. Any public benefit is outweighed by the privacy interests of these residents.”
Lawyers for The Caucus and LNP must respond by today to the Office of Open Records on parameters for redactions proposed by the governor’s lawyers. The open records agency will then “endeavor to issue an opinion within 30-60 days” on what should be redacted, said Lyndsay Kensinger, Wolf’s spokesperson.
For his part, Crompton said he does not know who else applied in 2019 for the open seat on the Commonwealth Court, and he compared it to another judicial position, in federal court, that he had previously applied to but didn’t get.
“To this day I don't know who applied,” Crompton said. “I know who was selected and that I was not. I am certain that the U.S. Senate and the President at the time selected the individual that they thought was the best person for the position.”
The public stands to learn much more about candidates who apply for open judicial seats, based on what’s already been released by the Wolf administration for individuals who secured appointments.
Crompton’s questionnaire, for example, outlines his career from a Dickinson College undergraduate and Widener University School of Law graduate to a lawyer, staffer and political aide for Senate Republicans starting in 1993.
It includes his detailed explanations of his duties over 25 years, estimates of how many of his cases were in state versus federal courts, lists of dozens of groups he’s spoken to and publications he’s written for. It includes a list of what he described were the 12 most “significant litigated matters” he was involved in.
It lists his five-month leave of absence in 2006 to serve as deputy campaign manager for Republican gubernatorial nominee Lynn Swann, who lost to Gov. Ed Rendell. Under “honors and awards,” he lists profiles of him in newspapers and websites and accolades awarded by the press, like making Politics PA’s “rising star” list in 2002 and being named “one of the best attorneys in the state” by PA Report in 2003.
The application also, however, shows what kind of information may still be withheld. His year of birth and his personal financial information are redacted. In another instance, he writes, “I have been a part owner in the [redacted] Company for the past three or so years. To my knowledge, [redacted] is not currently the subject of any legal proceedings.”
That company is Dan Smith’s Candies, which is owned primarily by Scarnati, Crompton’s former boss and former Senate leader, according to previous reporting and public records that don’t redact that information.
“I have an unique skill set to serve as a Commonwealth Court judge,” Crompton said in the interview with The Caucus. ”Much of what we do on the Court is to interpret regulations and state and local laws. I worked on legislative issues and high profile litigation for 25 years.”
He says he’s authored 100 opinions so far as a judge.