The three candidates running in the May 21 judicial primary in Westmoreland County will be closely watching a state Supreme Court hearing set for May on the issue of mandatory retirement for state judges at the age of 70.
The three candidates -- attorneys Bill McCabe, Meagan Bilik DeFazio and Harry F. Smail Jr. -- are running to fill the Court of Common Pleas seat vacated by Judge John Driscoll, who turned 70 last year and was forced to retire under the state statute.
Judge Driscoll, who is still working as a senior judge, has filed a lawsuit along with other judges seeking to have the state's mandatory judge retirement age reversed.
Pennsylvania's highest court last week announced it would hold an expedited hearing on the challenge that was filed in the state Commonwealth Court.
"They almost never do that, and especially tell you when a hearing will be held, so that's unusual," Mr. McCabe said.
Mr. McCabe questioned whether the state court judges should rule on the mandatory retirement age issue since it affects them, as well.
"They should all recuse themselves," he said, saying he thought the issue was better suited for the federal courts. Several of the state's Supreme Court judges will turn 70 in the next few years.
All three Westmoreland judge candidates have cross-filed in the primary, so they will appear on both the Democratic and Republican ballots.
Mr. McCabe, 57, of North Huntingdon is a registered Democrat, and Mrs. DeFazio, 38, of North Huntingdon and Mr. Smail, 47, of Hempfield are Republicans.
Mr. McCabe won the endorsement of the Democratic Party on March 23, but the county Republican Party does not endorse in the primary.
Some information about the candidates:
• Mr. McCabe has been a practicing litigation attorney in Greensburg for nearly three decades, with experience in criminal and civil cases and federal court. He was an assistant district attorney under Mr. Driscoll for four years before joining the law firm of DeBernardo, Antoniono, McCabe, Davis and DeDiana. He is married with two grown children.
• Mr. Smail is making his second bid for a seat on the bench. He has a private practice and has 16 years of litigation experience, focusing on criminal, family and civil cases. He ran for judge in 2009, and has also run unsuccessfully for other county posts. He ran for register of wills in 1997, clerk of courts in 2001 and for county commissioner in 2003. He is married with two children, ages 21 and 5.
• Mrs. DeFazio has 13 years in practice and is a partner with the firm of Loughran, Mlakar and Bilik. She has five years of criminal experience in the public defender's office, and a total of 12 years of trial experience. In the last couple of years, she has focused on representing land owners in oil and gas litigation. She also ran unsuccessfully for judge in 2009. She is married with three children, ages 7, 5 and 2.
Traditionally in Westmoreland County, a newly elected judge goes to family court, where Judge Driscoll has served. However, two criminal court judges and one civil court judge have indicated they may retire in 2015, so a newly elected judge may have the option to move to another division.
Mr. Smail said he has had more than 4,000 clients in his 16-year career, and 1,500 in family cases. He is a certified mediator and also worked six years in the county probation and parole office. He serves as a guardian with the Children's Bureau when the agency takes custody of a child and places him in a foster home.
"The median income of a family in Westmoreland County is $48,000," he said. "I see what it costs families to go through extended cases, and as a family court judge I could expedite some of these cases."
He cited an example of a custody battle where he was one of the attorneys on the case that went on for more than a decade, going to the state Supreme Court four times on various appeals.
"The county court could have settled that in the first year of litigation," he said.
He also cited the devastating effects of rising heroin overdose deaths on county families.
On the topic of the Constitution, he said: "I'm a strict constructionist and I believe in protecting the rights of the individual," he said. "The Constitution is not a living document and I'm not going to legislate from the bench."
Mrs. DeFazio changed her registration from Democrat to Republican in early 2012.
"When the birth control mandate came out from the Obama administration I realized my values were more in line with the GOP," she said. "The voters in Westmoreland County want to know you're a conservative, whether you're a Democrat or a Republican."
"I have a passion for children and I think I can be an asset to families," she said. "I think I can give back in the biggest way by being a judge."
She is vice president of the board of CASA -- Court Appointed Special Advocates -- a nonprofit organization that provides each abused or neglected child in the foster care system with an advocate.
She said that it is important to keep abused or neglected children who are removed from home in contact with other family members, and to place them with a permanent family as soon as possible.
Mr. McCabe, when asked why he wanted to be a judge, said, "I just love the courtroom. I love dealing with judges and lawyers. I like knowing if you work hard and prepare, you are likely to be successful in court.
"As a lawyer, you like to practice before judges who have as much experience as possible. And after 32 years of court litigation, I feel I have the necessary legal experience, and my colleagues encouraged me to run.
"I have a lot of family court experience and I would look forward to serving in family court," he said.
Mr. McCabe was awarded the President's Award for Professionalism at the annual Westmoreland Bar Association membership meeting on April 1. The award is not an annual award, but is presented when a member exemplifies the highest standards of the profession, according to the county bar association. He also received the highest attorney rating possible issued by a New Jersey company, Martindale-Hubbell. He said the firm sends an anonymous questionnaire to lawyers in the county.
All three candidates said they will try to meet as many people in the county as possible -- at rallies, house parties and by going door to door.
Mr. Smail said he has been going door-to-door since January in Derry, Hempfield, Greensburg and Murrysville.
All said they will target "super voters" in Westmoreland County -- those who vote in almost every election.
That's because candidates know that voter turnout the year after a presidential election is often very low. Sometimes, only 20 percent of registered voters go to the polls in municipal election years.
So those super voters -- who have voted in three of the last four elections -- can expect mailers, phone calls and even candidates at their door in the next seven weeks.
On the issue of the mandatory retirement of judges at 70, the age limit was added to the state constitution in the late 1960s. But attorneys for the judges challenging the addition argue the state constitution itself states "neither the Commonwealth nor any political subdivision thereof shall deny to any person the enjoyment of any civil right nor discriminate against any person in the exercise of any civil right."
The Corbett administration has supported the mandatory retirement age in court filings on the issue.
The federal courts have upheld a mandatory retirement age for judges in Missouri.
Debra Duncan, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.