GOP Senate aide’s appellate court appointment puts new scrutiny on judicial nominations.

The Pennsylvania Judicial Center in Harrisburg (Capital-Star file)

When a judge on one of Pennsylvania’s two appellate courts announced his retirement in August, an office within the Wolf administration began to solicit applications from people who wanted to replace him. 

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has never said who threw their hats into the ring, even after reporters requested a list of all the applicants’ names.

The only one ever made public was that of Drew Crompton, a top aide to Senate Republican leaders whom Wolf nominated in November to fill an empty seat on Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court.

Crompton joined the Senate Republicans straight out of law school in 1993, and has spent the last 26 years crafting the caucus’s legal and legislative strategies. According to a biography he provided to members of the Senate, the Montgomery County native has drafted hundreds of bills that are currently law.

The Senate voted 42-7 on Wednesday to confirm Crompton’s nomination, easily surpassing the two-thirds majority required to send him to the appellate bench.

Crompton will serve a two-year term on the court. He can run in a partisan election to retain his seat when his first term expires, but says he has yet to decide if he’ll do so.

Crompton says that his deep experience in the legislative branch will bring a unique perspective to the nine-member bench, which hears appeals of civil cases involving state and local government agencies.

But his ascent from the Senate Republican caucus to one of the most influential courts in the state has generated skepticism from a group of Senate Democrats, who say it’s time to change the secretive process Pennsylvania uses to fill judicial vacancies. 

“Our judicial nominees should not be chosen in smoke-filled backroom deals, but in the light of day, for all to see,” Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-Allegheny, said Wednesday, when she appeared with three Democratic colleagues to announce legislation that they say would increase transparency and public input in the selection process.

Pennsylvania’s governors have a degree of discretion when it comes to filling judicial vacancies. 

The process Wolf put in place allows prospective judges to apply for a vacant seat. Applicants then sit for lengthy private interviews with an advisory panel, whose members report back to Wolf.

The process remains behind closed doors as Wolf negotiates his nominees with the State Senate, which must confirm them by a two-thirds vote. Each appointee can be the subject of months of private deal-making between Wolf and the Republican and Democratic Senate leaders.

The Senate Judiciary Committee vets nominees in public hearings before advancing them to the full chamber. But most confirmations are all but inevitable by that point, as leaders from both parties have worked behind the scenes to line up the votes they need.

The legislation Senate Democrats introduced Wednesday would require the governor’s office to publicly post the names of everyone who applies to fill a judicial vacancy. The applications would be subject to a 30-day public comment period followed by a televised hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, who’s backing the bill, said he has long supported merit-based selection of judges. He also rejected the notion that the bill was aimed at any specific judicial nominee. 

But Williams’s freshmen colleagues had stronger words for Crompton, saying his partisan career and lack of trial experience make him unsuited for the bench.

“Drew Crompton is not qualified and should never have been nominated,” Sen. Lindsey Williams said at a press conference to promote the reform bill. 

Crompton responded to those concerns when he appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday morning, where members questioned him for nearly 30 minutes before voting 11-3 to advance his nomination to the full Senate.

One committee member who voted against his nomination was Sen. Maria Collett, D-Bucks, who’s also sponsoring the judicial reform package.

Collett, a former trauma nurse and attorney, pressed Crompton to explain when he would recuse himself from cases, including ones challenging laws he has written.

Crompton told the panel that he “will not be slow to recuse [himself from cases] when warranted,” including when a case involved a law he was heavily involved in drafting.

He also assured members he would shed his partisan leanings and relationships once he takes the bench. 

“I plan to make an absolute clean break with the Senate,” Crompton said. “I have no interest in keeping one foot here and one in the judiciary. This comes down to my integrity… and I believe people who have worked closest with me understand the integrity I have operated in for two decades.”

A majority of Senate Democrats apparently agree. 14 members of the caucus voted to confirm Crompton on Wednesday, outnumbering two-to-one their Democratic colleagues who voted against him.

Crompton was one of five judicial nominees confirmed in separate votes by the Senate on its last session day of 2019.

The others included former state Attorney General Bruce Beemer, who was appointed to serve on the Allegheny County court, and three nominees to the Common Pleas Court in Philadelphia. All four received unanimous support from the 49-member Senate.