Chip Minemyer: Turning politicians into impartial judges?

May 12—In campaign advertisements airing frequently on local stations, a candidate for judge in Cambria County's Court of Common pleas calls himself "a proud conservative who will judge each case on its own merits."

By declaring your political leaning, can you still claim to judge each case fairly?

That is the question voters must ask themselves as Tuesday's primary election approaches.

This particular candidate, Republican Brett Smith, said: "My goal is to bring conservative leadership to the courtroom as the next generation of judge."

In a perfect world, a judge would serve his or her entire career and nobody in the surrounding region would even know if the person wearing the robe is a Democrat, Republican, Independent or something else.

But that's not how it works when elections determine who gets to hand down prison sentences, decide custody cases and settle civil disputes.

Jackie Kulback, Cambria County's Republican Party chairwoman, said she had a conversation with a voter who demanded to know where a local judicial candidate stood on abortion — even though that hyper-divisive issue is not playing out at the county level.

The roles of vote-chaser and justice-distributor would seem to produce a clash of conflicting duties and ideologies.

If a judge comes from a declared perspective, can someone from another place on the political spectrum truly expect fair treatment?

"It's a tightrope they're walking on," Kulback said.

Pennsylvania political analyst G. Terry Madonna, senior fellow in residence for political affairs at Millersville University, said the courts and politics have long been yoked at the ballot box — rather than having them appointed by other elected officials, which could be an even thornier proposition.

So running for judge means telling voters what you believe — or perhaps what they want to hear.

"Local judicial candidates usually campaign to some extent," Madonna said. "They obtain support from local organizations and groups, and, of course, the party organizations. That's been true historically."

Five attorneys — all Republicans who cross-filed onto both parties' ballots — are running for two Cambria judge seats that will open up at year's end, when President Judge Norman A. Krumenacker III and Senior Judge Patrick T. Kiniry step down, as the Tribune's Katie Smolen has reported.

The contenders are Michael Carbonara, Forest Fordham, Tonilyn Chippie Kargo, Timothy Sloan and Smith — whose red campaign billboards are everywhere across the local landscape.

In a meeting last month with The Tribune-Democrat's editorial board, leaders of the Cambria County Bar Association announced that their organization had voted to recommend three candidates — Fordham (highly recommend), Sloan (recommended) and Carbonara (recommended).

Smith was not recommended, and Chippie Kargo did not receive enough votes from bar association members to produce a rating.

"The attorneys take this very seriously because not only do we work in front of these judges, but judges are elected for 10-year terms," Heath Long, chairman of the bar association's judicial review committee, said in that meeting.

Kulback handicapped the judicial election as "four candidates kind of in the middle of the road, with Brett Smith really running as a strong Republican. We'll see how that works out."

Kulback said the GOP will be approaching a 10,000-voter advantage in Cambria County when the primary arrives — which amplifies Brett Smith's strategy of running as "a proud conservative" even as his father, B.J. Smith, is seeking to keep his seat on the Cambria County Board of Commissioners as a Democrat.

This run for the bench would be settled if any two of the five candidates were the top two vote-getters in both the Republican and Democratic primaries.

However, Kulback expects there to be a split result on Tuesday — which would mean a competitive race to the general election in November.

In his ads, Smith said being a judge is "not just about enforcing the law, but about making sure people get a fair shake."

That seems reasonable.

Except he also seems to suggest that certain people are more deserving of that approach — or that all offenders are not the same, and should be not be treated equally.

In one ad, Smith says: "Hard-working folks who make a mistake are different than out-of-town criminals who are invading our communities."

Smith has pulled buzzwords from the conservative playbook — telling The Tribune- Democrat he would "stand up against the liberal woke agenda," and arguing that the bar association passed him over because "I'm not a member of their aging liberal lawyers' establishment."

The bar association stood by its choices.

"If you need a recommendation for a mechanic or anything else, you go to the people that you trust that work with these people, and I think that's why we are doing this," the group's president, Arlene Dudeck, said.

Smith offered this prediction: "I think the people will decide this election, not the attorneys."

Yes they will.

In the current political climate, can an individual campaign hard for votes to earn a seat on a county bench, but then step away from that rhetoric and become an independent and fair arbiter if elected?

The two candidates who emerge from this five-person race in Cambria County will be expected to do just that — make decisions based on the law, not their personal beliefs.

That's why, Kulback said, "it's really rough to be a judge."

She added: "No matter who wins, Cambria County will have two great new judges."

Chip Minemyer is the publisher of The Tribune-Democrat and The Times-News of Cumberland, Md. He can be reached at 814-532-5111. Follow him on Twitter @MinemyerChip.