As senior Senate GOP aide Crompton looks to a future on state court, critics have questions

Senate counsel Drew Crompton.

(*This post has been updated to include additional information about the taxpayer-funded bonus that Drew Crompton received in 2007)

One of the highest-ranking Republican staffers in the state Legislature may soon take a seat on one of Pennsylvania’s top appellate courts.

Drew Crompton, a lawyer who has who has spent nearly three decades working for Senate Republican leaders, was nominated by Gov. Tom Wolf Monday to fill an empty seat on Commonwealth Court.

Crompton’s nomination appeared on a slate of executive nominations that Wolf submitted to the Senate on Tuesday, Nov. 19. The Senate must wait for 10 days before holding floor votes on judicial appointments.

If he’s seated on the bench, Crompton would replace Judge Robert Simpson, who retired from the court in August, and serve a two-year term.

Crompton’s  appointment must be approved by a two-thirds vote by the state Senate. It’s one of five judicial nominations that are slated to come before the Republican-controlled chamber on Tuesday, including Democratic nominees to judicial benches in Philadelphia. 

Crompton, who also works as chief of staff to Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, told the Capital-Star Tuesday that he has had an interest in the judiciary for several years. 

He applied for a federal judgeship seat last year and was not selected.

When Crompton learned of Simpson’s retirement in August, he said he submitted an application to the Office of General Counsel, the cabinet-level agency that vets candidates to fill judicial vacancies. He sat for an hour-long interview with a commission this fall before Wolf selected him as the nominee. 

The longtime GOP staffer has deep ties to some of the most powerful Republicans in the state. But he’s confident that he’ll be able to put his professional relationships and political leanings aside if he’s appointed to the bench.

“I’m perfectly happy to separate myself from [the Senate,] even though it has been my home for 26 years,” Crompton said in a Tuesday interview in Scarnati’s Capitol office. “It’s going to be a clean break.”

As the lead counsel for the Senate Republican caucus, Crompton oversees in-house and private practice lawyers who litigate cases on behalf of the caucus and its members. 

That may include bringing a legal challenge against a Wolf administration policy, or defending the caucus from federal sexual harassment claims like the one brought by former Senate security employees in 2017. 

Commonwealth Court judges typically work in private legal practice or as counsel to state and local government agencies before assuming their seats in the appellate bench, biographies published on the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts’ website show.

Four judges, including Simpson, of Northampton County, presided over Court of Common Pleas chambers before assuming their appellate judgeships.

Maida Malone, president and CEO of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a non-partisan group that advocates to end partisan judicial elections in Pennsylvania, said that other Commonwealth Court justices “have far more judicial experience” than Crompton does. 

Though she declined to comment on Crompton’s career in the Republican-led Senate, Malone said his lack of judicial experience makes him a “a surprising choice” for a seat on one of the state’s highest courts.

But Crompton said his deep experience in the legislative branch will bring a unique perspective to the nine-member court, which hears civil cases related to banking, insurance, employment, labor practices, elections and other areas. 

The Commonwealth Court’s wide jurisdiction makes it the venue for a number of high-profile legal battles each year. For example, the court recently took up a legal challenge to Marsy’s Law, the proposed constitutional amendment that would create new rights for crime victims. 

The court also issued a ruling in September allowing gun owners to challenge municipal gun control ordinances, regardless of where they live or whether the ordinance affects them.

Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court judges are selected in partisan elections. They serve 10-year terms and can run for reelection — or “retention” — in a nonpartisan ballot questions. They must retire at age 75.

Commonwealth Court judges are some of the highest-paid public employees in Pennsylvania, earning annual salaries of $191,926, according to the National Center for State Courts.

In case of an early retirement or resignation, the governor appoints a replacement that must be approved by a two-thirds Senate vote.

Until recently, judges who filled vacancies on the Commonwealth Court did not typically run for full, 10-year terms when their appointments expired. 

Crompton said that’s changed in recent years. Even if he is appointed, he doesn’t yet know if he’ll try to keep the judgeship after 2022. 

“I would be inclined to run for the position, but I really have not made up my mind,” he said. “I’ll consider it when the time comes.”

Since he joined the Senate Republican staff in 1993 as a policy advisor, Crompton has become one of the most influential non-elected officials in the state Legislature. 

He’s a key player in annual budget negotiations and has drafted legislation on an array of issues, including updates to Pennsylvania’s ethics law, according to the online news outlet City and State PA. 

During his time as a Senate staffer, the Montgomery County native has also periodically served on Republican campaigns.

*Crompton was one of the publicly paid staffers who received a hefty bonus in 2007 — the result, he told the Capital-Star, of his legislative work.

Crompton said his $19,467 bonus was slightly lower than what other staffers received because he did not work the full year in the Legislature. He took five months off of the Senate in 2006 to work on Lynn Swann’s unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign, and his pay raise took effect when he returned to Senate payroll full-time, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Pennsylvania state law prohibits officials from using taxpayer funds for campaign purposes. But an investigation by former Attorney General Tom Corbett found that legislators paid out millions in legal bonuses to former campaign employees who were hired on the public payroll after their races concluded.

While the probe resulted in the arrest and conviction of Republican and Democratic lawmakers in the House, and some staff, no one from the Senate Republican caucus faced arrest or charges.

Recent reporting suggests Crompton has continued to perform campaign duties while holding his post in the Senate, which carries a $201,029 annual salary — one of the highest in the legislature. 

A yearlong investigation by news outlets Spotlight PA and the Caucus, which showed how lax campaign finance laws allow Pennsylvania lawmakers and their campaign staff to spend millions of dollars on travel, meals, and other expenses, named Crompton as one of two Scarnati aides who have personal access to campaign credit card. 

That allowed him to spend nearly $500 on a dinner in Las Vegas, campaign finance records show — part of a trip that Crompton said included fund-raising with casino executives.

Crompton acknowledges that his long career in Harrisburg has made him a controversial figure. But he doesn’t think any part of his career will dog him during the nomination process. 

“If you live and work in this arena for 26 years, you’re going to have critics,” Crompton said. “That being said, I think I have earned a lot of respect among members and colleagues on both sides of the aisle. If that wasn’t the case, I wouldn’t have been [nominated.]”