Brief History of the Judicial Disciplinary Process in PA
Early Methods of Disciplining Judicial Officers
The Pennsylvania Constitution has always provided for the removal of public officials, including judicial officers, through the process of impeachment and trial of impeachment. That process vests in the House of Representatives the sole power to impeach, and requires the Senate to conduct a trial of the impeachment. Article VI, §5 of the Constitution requires the concurrence of at least two-thirds of the Senate members "present" to convict an impeached public official.
Beginning as early as 1776, the legislature of the Commonwealth anticipated, and provided for, the removal of judicial officers by the legislature, through a means other than impeachment. The Constitution of 1776 provided that the General Assembly at any time could remove "judges" of the Supreme Court for "misbehavior." The Constitution of 1790 altered that provision by providing for gubernatorial removal of judges of the courts of common pleas as well as Supreme Court Justices upon "address" by a two-thirds vote of each branch of the legislature, when such conduct provided "reasonable cause" for removal.1
Article V, §15 of the Constitution of 1874 similarly allowed for removal "upon address" and provided:
All judges required to be learned in the law, except the judges of the Supreme Court, shall be elected by the qualified electors of the respective districts over which they are to preside, and shall hold their offices for the period of ten years, if they shall so long behave themselves well; but for any reasonable cause, which shall not be sufficient ground for impeachment, the Governor may remove any of them on address of two-thirds of each House of the General Assembly.
Both the 1790 and 1874 provisions are extraordinary specimens of ambiguity. Address is no longer a viable method for removing members of the judiciary. Article V, §7 of the Constitution now excludes judicial officers from those public officials subject to removal upon address.
In addition to impeachment and address, beginning with the Constitution of 1838, certain public officials, including judicial officers have been subject to removal upon "conviction of misbehavior in office or of an infamous crime." Article V, §7 of the Constitution.
Before the adoption of the 1968 Constitution, the Supreme Court itself probably had the power to remove a judicial officer through the exercise of its inherent powers to supervise the judicial system.2
However, whatever inherent powers that Court might have possessed, or continues to possess, case law suggests that the Court itself has regarded its powers as limited, for in two very early decisions, the Supreme Court held that the specific constitutional provisions pre-dating the 1968 Constitution, namely impeachment, address, and forfeiture of office for misbehavior in office or conviction of an infamous crime, provided the exclusive means for removal of judicial officers. Commonwealth v. Gamble, 62 Pa. 343 (1869); Bowman's Case, 74 A. 203 (1909).
More "General Information"
1 There appears to be no decisions that interpret the term "reasonable cause." The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has referred to address as a method of removal only once, in Com. ex rel. Duff v. Keenan, 347 Pa. 574, 33 A.2d 244 (1943). In that case, the Attorney General of the Commonwealth filed a Petition in Mandamus seeking to compel the performance of judges in Westmoreland County who had allegedly failed to issue decisions in a timely manner. In dicta, the Court noted that "[a]ny judge who either by his "sale", his "denial", or his delay of justice destroys or prejudices a suitor's rights subjects himself to removal from office under either of the two methods prescribed in Article VI, §4 of the Constitution of 1874. Id. at 583, 33 A.2d at 249.
2 Former Article V, §3 of the Constitution placed with the Supreme Court the King's Bench Powers. See Carpentertown Coal & Coke Co. v. Laird, 360 Pa. 94, 61 A.2d 426 (1948). In that case the Supreme Court noted "[i]nherent in the Court of the King's Bench, was the power of general superintendency over inferior tribunals..."
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