County could allow challenge in consolidated district court race
A court order that eliminates a district court in Fayette County indicates the $86,639-per-year judgeship is not to appear on the ballot, but a chance still exists for would-be candidates to mount a challenge in a newly created consolidated district, according to a Department of State spokesman.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Tuesday issued an order approving the closing of the office of retiring District Judge Dwight Shaner of Franklin Township. Under the realignment order, beginning Jan. 1, jurisdiction of Shaner's office will be shifted to that of Belle Vernon District Judge Jesse Cramer.
Four would-be candidates had previously announced intentions to seek Shaner's seat, but the court order indicates the vacancy “shall not appear on the ballot in the 2013 municipal election.”
Although the order prevents candidates from running for Shaner's office, the county could allow them to challenge Cramer in the consolidated district, said Ron Ruman, press secretary for the Department of State.
“Our recommendation is that the people who were going to run should be able to run in the new district because they are becoming part of that district,” Ruman said. “That's our recommendation, but jurisdiction is under the president judge and the county board of elections, so one of those two, or them in combination, would make the call.”
Fayette's president judge, John F. Wagner Jr., was unavailable for comment because of the death of his wife, Christine.
County commissioners comprise the election board.
Noting that “it has not yet been determined if this decision is to be made by the president judge or the election board,” Commissioner Angela Zimmerlink said she has contacted the courts for direction.
“If I am told it is a decision for the election board, then I will call for a prompt public meeting of the election board,” Zimmerlink said.
Commissioner Al Ambrosini said although the court order prevents anyone from running for Shaner's office, he plans to consult with the election board's solicitor, Sheryl Heid, regarding the county's responsibilities. He questioned timing, pointing out that candidates' nominating petitions are due Tuesday.
Commissioner Vincent Zapotosky said if the realignment is handled in the same manner as are congressional reapportionments, residents of the newly created district should be allowed to run as long as they meet all other requirements.
“I don't see how you can deprive somebody the right to run for an office that has been consolidated and they live in that consolidated district,” Zapotosky said.
Larry Blosser, election bureau director, said he is waiting to hear from Heid or commissioners regarding how the bureau is to proceed.
For now, based on an opinion he was provided on Wednesday through the state's Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, Blosser said he is advising candidates to circulate nominating petitions for the newly created district in both Shaner's and Cramer's districts.
“They need to put on their petitions the new district number,” Blosser said. “So anyone with petitions for 14-3-06 (Shaner's district) must correct them with the new district number (14-3-04) at the top.”
Blosser said petitions that were already circulated in Shaner's district prior to the court's announcement will be considered valid for the consolidated district once they are annotated with the consolidated district's number. That is permissible, he said, because Shaner's district will be part of the consolidated district.
Heid did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Cramer on Wednesday said the Supreme Court's order clearly indicates Shaner's office is off the ballot.
“I feel bad there were folks running for a position they eliminated, but I didn't eliminate it,” Cramer said. “I do feel bad for some of those folks, who were getting petitions signed, and getting ready to start their campaigns, but downsizing of government is what it is.”
One of the would-be candidates for Shaner's office, George Stash III of Dunbar Township, said he plans to continue campaigning until a decision is made.
“The residents of our area need somebody familiar with the area and the residents,” said Stash, 36, who owns a lawn care business. “I'm staying in it full force.”
Two others, Kenneth H. Jaynes, 51, and Shaner's daughter, Soni Shaner Mancuso, 38, both of Dunbar Township, said they are still looking into the ruling's implications.
The fourth, Richard A. Kasunic II, 38, of Dunbar Township — the son of state Sen. Rich Kasunic, a Dunbar Township Democrat — could not be reached for comment. Kasunic is the only candidate who has already filed his nominating petitions, Blosser said.
District judges serve for six years and earn $86,639 annually.
Liz Zemba is a reporter for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or firstname.lastname@example.org.