By Jacqueline G. Goodwin, Ed.D.
Finally, an elected official has gone on the record concerning the order by State Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille that the seat now held by retiring Magisterial District Judge Joseph Solomon be abolished at year’s end as a cost-cutting move.
It’s about time. In a Patriot News article, State Rep. Ron Buxton, D-Harrisburg, states, “The timing of the whole situation stinks.”
And he’s right. It stinks. The order to shut Solomon’s office, which covers the midtown and downtown areas of Harrisburg that includes the state Capitol Complex, came towards the end of the primary election. Not only did the Supreme Court’s order cause substantial disruption to a legal, ongoing, officially-called electoral process, it infringed upon my constitutional and statutory rights.
That’s why I decided to file a federal lawsuit, alleging violations of my rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Joining me in Goodwin v. Castille et al, filed in U.S. Middle District Court, are my former opponents, Roy E. Christ, Jr., Ronald G. Chapel, Leonard J. Lemelle, Jr., and Lynette Paszek. Chapel and Lemelle are also alleging violation of their rights under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
We’ve joined together in the fight because all of us were denied the right to seek the office by order of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania on April 15 that dissolved Magisterial District 12-1-03 and cancelled the primary election for which we had qualified as candidates.
Named as defendants are Ronald D. Castille in his official capacity as Chief Justice of Pennsylvania, and the Dauphin County Board of Elections.
We seek relief in the form of a special primary election with the winners to be placed on the general election ballot in November. We also seek the court to enjoin Chief Justice Castille from eliminating the position for a period of six years.
Our suit alleges the Supreme Court’s eleventh-hour cancellation of the election without re-assignment of the voters of the district to surrounding judicial districts denied to all residents of the district the right to seek the position of magisterial district judge in any surrounding district to which they might have been assigned.
In addition, our suit contends the Supreme Court has eliminated the voting right of a large bloc of the African-American voting population by its order. We allege that by failing to re-assign such disenfranchised voters to another magisterial district, the Court has unfairly discriminated against this population.
Additionally, our suit addresses the fact that while African-Americans within Magisterial District 12-1-03 have been denied a right to choose the district judge of their choice, their white counterparts in other parts of Dauphin County outside the City of Harrisburg have not been so affected.
For example, the office of District Judge Robert V. Manlove, who retired in 2009, has been allowed to remain open without a permanent replacement, leaving some to wonder if the court truly wanted to save money then why wasn’t this office permanently eliminated. Manlove was the Magisterial District Judge for the Camp Hill, Lemoyne and Wormleysburg judicial district, a predominately white neighborhood.
Even so, Dauphin County President Judge Todd A. Hoover believes the decision to abolish Judge Solomon’s office a good one, although Solomon has called the closure ruling a “travesty” because no plan to redistribute his district is in place.
“We will save about $850,000 a year by closing that office,” Hoover told the Patriot News. “His was the right office to close.”
There are two huge errors here. First, the operating budget (which includes all salaries, wages and benefits) for Solomon’s office in 2010 was approximately $500,000 while revenue was approximately $900,000. That is a $400,000 “profit.” In prior years the “profit” was as high as $650,000. Thus, the notion of saving $850,000 is ludicrous. How can you save $850,000 when it only cost $500,000 to operate?
Secondly, despite knowing of the pending retirement since Oct. 8, 2010, the president judge did nothing to prepare for the closing. The first step wasn’t taken until April 15, 2011 and there is still no known plan as to how to distribute the existing cases.
While Castille has ordered the county court to devise one for the state court consideration, Hoover said work on a plan is under way, but didn’t know if redistricting could be instituted before the November election. As this column goes to press, there is no plan in place.
The First Amendment, as made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment, guarantees the right of the people to vote. An election, once called and for which candidates have qualified for ballot placement, cannot be cancelled without impairment of the electorate’s First Amendment right to vote.
If the state court wants to close district judge offices statewide, it needs to do it legally. It should not violate my constitutional rights or interfere with the election process.
The filing of the federal lawsuit is not about the “job” the “money” or the “budget.” It’s about closing the office and redistricting before the electorate nominated candidates. It’s about allowing the electorate to choose their judge in its new magisterial district. It’s about disenfranchising a large segment of African-American voters.
In the end, it’s about the right to vote. . .a right many Americans have died to protect.