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The Investigator
Your exclusive guide to the best journalism in Pa.
December 19, 2019 | spotlightpa.org
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Lawmakers plan to introduce a bill to increase transparency in filling empty court seats after a Spotlight PA report on secrecy and deal-making. Plus, the board of Pa.'s top economic development authority is mired in finger-pointing. And we've added more reporting muscle to our team covering the capital.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK

“It is a system that is dangerous, corrosive, antiquated and doesn’t meet the standard if we want the best people on the bench."

— Sen. Anthony Williams (D., Philadelphia) on the secrecy and deal-making in Pennsylvania's process for filling empty court seats.

 MEET THE TEAM 

Matt McKinney joins Spotlight PA staff, will cover the State Police and statewide criminal justice

My job is to help readers understand how authorities enforce or run afoul of the law, and how policing and corrections are carried out in the name of taxpayers. That means pulling back the curtain on even the most obscure corners of the criminal justice system to shed light on injustice.

My attention will largely focus on the State Police, the Attorney General’s Office and the Corrections Department, but I'm always interested in newsworthy happenings involving related agencies.

Do you work in one of these agencies, or have you interacted with them, and know something I ought to look into? Whether it's exposing wasted resources or abuses of power, I believe in the power of fair, honest journalism to help make Pennsylvania a better place. 

— Matt McKinney, Spotlight PA
»Email Matt at mmckinney@spotlightpa.org. For more secure ways to get in touch with our team, visit spotlightpa.org/tips.

 FROM THE CAPITOL 

Democrats push for more transparency in nomination process for judicial vacancies

Four Senate Democrats said Wednesday they plan to introduce a bill to bring more transparency to the nominating process for filling judicial vacancies.
 
Q: What are judicial vacancies?
A: In Pennsylvania, judges are generally elected in partisan elections. But when judges retire early or step down from the bench before their terms end, the state Constitution requires that the governor nominate someone to complete the term, and that the nominee be confirmed by the Senate.
 
Q: What's the current process for nominations?
A: Gov. Wolf set up an advisory committee to vet applications for any judicial vacancies, but it’s unclear who sits on it, what benchmarks it uses to judge applicants or even whether it eventually makes recommendations to the governor. After that, the governor negotiates with the Senate’s Democratic and Republican leaders on whom to nominate, a deal-making process that takes place entirely behind closed doors.

Q: What's wrong with how people are nominated now?
A: In a word: secrecy. The public doesn’t know how many people are applying, who they are, what their background is, how they are vetted or how the governor’s advisory committee decides on the most qualified applicants. As a result, the public doesn’t get to weigh in on the decision. And, as this year’s judicial nominating process showed, the governor doesn’t even have to explain his thinking about why his nominees may be the best people for the job.
 
Q: What would happen under the new proposal?
A: It would require the governor’s Office of General Counsel to publicly post on its website the names of applicants for all judicial vacancies, as well as any paperwork they submitted as part of their applications. The public would have 30 days to send in comments or other input. Any public comments would also be forwarded to the majority and minority chairs of the committee that conducts the confirmation hearing. That hearing would have to be televised, and the minority and majority chairs would get equal time to question the nominees.
 
Q: Does the new bill stand a chance of passing?
A: Unclear. Republicans who control the Senate were non-committal on the proposal, while Gov. Wolf, a Democrat, said he is open to changing the process. Still, the legislature has shown little interest in addressing the issue.

— Angela Couloumbis, Spotlight PA

Only the best

 SPOTLIGHT PA 

Canceled meetings and finger-pointing plague top Pa. economic development agency

Some say backroom disputes between board members of the Commonwealth Financing Authority are delaying funding.

 INQUIRER 

Hershey charitable school for poor children seeks to exempt itself from state oversight

Secrecy and deal-making dominate the process to fill court seats, making public scrutiny nearly impossible.

» State's largest marijuana dispensary removes controversial products from shelves
» Lawmakers tap brakes on elimination of annual vehicle emissions tests
» What are 'ghost guns' and why is the state so concerned about them?
» Recommendation to end public grand jury reports meets resistance
» Lawsuit seeks to block reuse of certain voting machines after problems
» Gov. Wolf signs criminal justice reforms to reduce state's prison population

We hit our $10,000 goal! Let's keep it going.

Thanks to YOU, we've hit our goal of raising $10,000 between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31, which will now be tripled by the Wyncote Foundation and NewsMatch, a national matching gift campaign for donor-funded newsrooms.

Let's keep up the momentum. Gifts to Spotlight PA will still be DOUBLED until the end of the year. Donate today and show your support for more accountability reporting about our state government.

Special thanks to our most recent donors, who helped us reach $10,000: Ashleigh C., Jodi A., Nicholas S., Lynda H., Edwin D., Bruce M. & Colleen G., Nina K., Jeff C., Debbie T., Theresa R., Milton S., Jim F. & Melissa S., Robert S., and Irv H.

THE RIDDLER

Send your answers to newsletters@spotlightpa.org.
 
Blackout (Case No. 17): The power was out and none of the street lights or traffic signals worked. A black truck was driving down a street with newly paved blacktop, with its headlights off. The moon wasn't out. But when a deer ran into the road, the truck immediately stopped and let it cross. How did the driver see the deer?
 
Stumped? Get a hint.
Want us to feature your riddle? Send it to us.

Last week's answers: The truck burned fuel during the drive. Congrats to Annette I., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who correctly answered: Ed L., Laura B., Melinda C., Claudia M., Jodi A., Deborah D., Terrie H., Lynda H., and Jon N.
» This week's Riddler hint: Make no assumptions
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