Categories Op/Ed

Editorial: Investigation Needed to Learn What’s Happening in Courts

Something strange is happening with our courts and it deserves scrutiny.

Jayne F. Duncan served as Elizabethtown’s local judge for 27 years. She resigned her office abruptly, telling the governor on Thursday, April 5, that she would not be in at work the following Monday. Even with an ordinary job, it is customary to give two weeks’ notice; resigning from a judicial office so abruptly after such a long tenure is utterly bizarre.

Judge Duncan was known for her calm demeanor and commitment to due process. She was first appointed to the office of what was then known as district justice by Gov. Robert P. Casey Sr. and was repeatedly re-elected to the office now known as magisterial district judge. A Republican, she would cross-file and was popular enough to get the nominations of both the Republican and Democratic parties. As far back as historic election results are available online, she was well respected enough that nobody got on the ballot to run against her. In her most recent election to a six-year term in 2015, she got 3,990 votes in the general election; 20 people wrote in other names. In the 2009 general election, she won with 3,232 votes over 18 writeins; in 2003, she won 3,629 to 0.

So why would someone so experienced and so well respected quit so abruptly? We don’t know, but we ought to.

But who has the power to find out? The Pennsylvania Legislature does.

Rule 45 of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives gives any committee the power to hold investigative hearings once it is authorized to do so by a resolution voted on by the full House. Once that resolution is passed, the committee has subpoena power, so it can compel people to show up and answer questions, just like a court has.

In the Senate, it’s even simpler. The Judiciary Committee could compel testimony without getting a majority vote of the whole chamber. Senate Rule 15 says in part: “In order to carry out its duties, each standing committee may issue subpoenas, subpoenas duces tecum and other necessary process to compel the attendance of witnesses and the production of any books, letters or other documentary evidence desired by the committee. The chair may administer oaths and affirmations in the manner prescribed by law to witnesses who shall appear before the committee to testify.”

Something strange is going on in the courts of Lancaster County. Maybe it’s perfectly innocent. Maybe some bad actors need to be exposed to public scrutiny. Maybe we need new laws to prevent it from happening again. The Legislature’s investigative power is the way to find out.

The preceding editorial is the opinion of The Elizabethtown Advocate. Other opinions on this page are those of individual contributors. The Advocate aims to give its readers a wide variety of opinions.

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