Election 2021 preview: Luzerne County judicial candidates

·11 min read

Oct. 24—WILKES-BARRE — The math may be simple — three candidates are vying for two seats on the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas — but arriving at the answer might take considerable thought for voters.

Each is an experienced attorney, but each also brings a significant yet distinct set of qualifications to the race.

The candidates for the Nov. 2 General Election are Magisterial District Judge Alexandra Kokura Kravitz, State Rep. Tarah Toohil and former Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis.

The three candidates met individually with the Times Leader Editorial Board last week; profiles based on those interviews follow, in alphabetical order.

It is expected that both winning candidates could be assigned to family court, a growing focus of the county court system. That topic came up in each of the interviews, as did the challenge of running a campaign in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

We have not delved into their various endorsements here, though it is worth noting that each has received the backing of multiple groups, including different organizations connected with law enforcement; those endorsements can be found on the candidates' respective websites and social media pages.

There are also six sitting county Court of Common Pleas judges seeking retention, which means voters must answer a yes/no question on whether they should remain in their post for another 10-year term.

These judges are: Lesa S. Gelb, Richard M. Hughes III, Fred A. Pierantoni, Jennifer L. Rogers, Joseph F. Sklarosky Jr. and Michael T. Vough.

Alexandra Kokura Kravitz

Age: 39

Residence: Dupont Borough

Education: Scranton Prep; Lehigh University; Widener University School of Law

Family: Husband Nick and 2 sons

Kokura Kravitz said her experience as a magisterial district judge the last eight years not only qualifies her for the county bench, but makes her the most experienced candidate in the field.

"I'll be ready to go on Day One," she said. "I've been a judge day-in and day-out."

Kokura Kravitz also said she has the most important quality a judge must have — temperament.

"A judge must be even-keeled," she said. "No doubt about it. I have seen the emotion in court. The people that appear before me are experiencing the most important thing in their lives at that moment. They have to feel that when they walk out of that courtroom, they were respected."

As a magisterial district judge, Kokura Kravitz said she learned how to manage the docket and handle anything that would come up during a proceeding.

"Again, you have to have the right temperament," she said. "A judge must be fair and impartial. I've enjoyed being a public servant. A lot of good can be accomplished there."

Kokura Kravitz said COVID forced many changes in the way the district court operates. She said in addition to ZOOM conferences, the pandemic forced improvements in information technology, resulting in better communications between all parties.

Kokura Kravitz said campaigning and getting her name out and her message heard has been a challenge during the pandemic. She said she had to get petitions signed and she utilized social media and traditional media to familiarize voters with who she is and to present her qualifications.

"I want voters to be able to decide who they feel can do this job," she said. "It's not about political party — it's about experience and temperament."

Kokura Kravitz said she is proud of her record as a magisterial district judge and she is prepared to accept any assignment given her by the President Judge.

"I feel a great connection to this community," she said. "I'm raising my kids here and their safety and the safety of the community is my top concern."

Kokura Kravitz said she has heard 6,000 to 7,000 cases per year as a magisterial district judge.

"Like I said, I have the experience to be ready on Day One," she said.

Kokura Kravitz said she wants to bring her experience as a Magisterial District Judge to serve Luzerne County where she lives and was raised, and where her family has resided for generations.

"As a Magisterial District Judge, I have presided over all types of matters, including thousands of criminal cases, civil disputes and traffic cases each year," she said. "I also have dealt with domestic violence and family issues. Magisterial District Courts handle a significant volume of cases that affect people's day-to-day lives."

As an attorney, Kokura Kravitz served as a law clerk to family court. As a Special Trial Master, she said she decided family court matters. As a District Judge for the last eight years, she has presided over more than 40,000 cases.

"In November, consider a vote for judicial experience," she said. "I am the only judge running for judge."

Stefanie Salavantis

Age: 39

Residence: Kingston Borough

Education: Dallas High School; Temple University; Thomas M. Cooley Law School at Western Michigan University

Family: Husband Jim McGrady and daughter Remington

Salavantis represented the people of Luzerne County as District Attorney from 2012 until this spring, when she resigned the post to run for judge.

"It's been an honor to work for 9-plus years with our communities and law enforcement to protect the people of Luzerne County," Salavantis said. "I decided I wanted to continue serving the public and when a seat on the county bench opened up, I thought long and hard, discussed it with my husband and made the decision to get in the race."

Salavantis said that if elected, she will serve wherever she is assigned. She has heard that family court will be the assignment for the two new county judges and she said she would welcome that position.

"I have a lot of experience in family court matters," Salavantis said. "I've seen cases from all angles and I feel I can really be an asset in family court."

The former DA said she would be fair and impartial and she has the temperament to handle the emotional issues that arise in difficult cases.

"There were many times I felt I had to be the strong voice in the room," she said. "I've dealt with families who were struggling. I've explained the law and have had to tell them that we must abide by the law."

Salavantis said she has worked with families of victims and, at times, she has met with families of defendants to help them get through extremely difficult times.

"The work I accomplished on behalf of families and victims is my biggest accomplishment," she said.

Salavantis said she worked hard to get Kevin's Law enacted, named after five-year-old Kevin Miller who was killed in a hit-and-run crash in Luzerne County. Passed in 2014, it requires a mandatory three-year prison term for at-fault drivers who flee the scene of fatal crashes in Pennsylvania.

"Families knew they always had someone who was looking out for them," Salavantis said. "And many of them have come back to thank me for helping them get through those difficult times."

Salavantis had oversight of over 40,000 criminal cases in her time as DA. Among her policy priorities were working to expand and improve diversionary programs — commonly dubbed "drug court." She said she sees the importance of second chances, but also noted that such programs require a lot of hard work for participants to successfully complete.

On the other side of that equation, Salavantis noted that she invested significant time and resources into building up the county's Drug Task Force to combat drug crime countywide.

Salavantis, despite being well known throughout the county, said she was challenged in trying to run her judicial campaign because of the restrictions imposed during the pandemic.

She has turned to social media, direct-mail, and the use of her website to get her message out. She said as DA, her office processed more than 5,000 cases per year.

"I worked very hard as District Attorney," she said. "When I was elected, I wanted to change the look of the district attorney's office. I got more involved in the community by talking to children, students, the elderly, to do all we could to improve the system.

"And now I feel I can do far more for the community by sitting on the bench."

Tarah Toohil

Age: 42

Residence: Butler Township

Education: Hazleton Area High School; Northeastern University; Penn State Dickinson School of Law

Family: Husband Scot Burkhardt and 6 children.

Toohil was elected to the State Legislature in 2011 and took office in 2012, representing the 116th Legislative District. She said that despite people in her constituency being somewhat saddened by her decision to seek a seat on the county bench, being a judge has always been her career goal.

"I feel with my abilities and experience, I will be a very good judge," she said. "I'm a listener and a writer and non-prejudicial. And I feel I have the right temperament for this position."

Toohil said being a state legislator required her to become familiar with issues that she had never been involved with before. She said she often had to deal with lobbyists and special interest groups.

She said she has experience with civil, federal and criminal matters, having been a clerk for former Luzerne County Judge Joseph Musto. She said she would serve wherever the President Judge assigns her, adding that family court would be one place where she feels she would excel.

"It would be amazing to be able to work in family court," Toohil said. "Family is most important and I would always approach it as your family being as important as my own family. I understand the issues and emotion found in family court cases."

Toohil noted that civil court comes down to family issues as well. However, she said she is confident that she could handle any assignment she receives,

"I'm a hard worker," she said. "I'm prepared for whatever I'm asked to do."

As an attorney, Toohil served as law clerk for the Luzerne County judiciary. Throughout her career, she has practiced in the areas of divorce, family law, estate work and immigration. She has worked with clients in mental health court, juvenile court, and drug treatment court. While in the legislature, Toohil has mainly assisted low income families in a pro bono capacity from her private practice, The Law Office of Tarah Toohil, Esq.

Last year, Toohil was also awarded the Pennsylvania Bar Association's Family Law Division Award for her legislative achievements in improving the divorce law in Pennsylvania.

Toohil said she has experience in foster care and the issues facing non-biological parents. She said foster care has seen many dramatic changes in the last 20 years or so and she has the experience to handle those cases.

Toohil was raised in Northeastern Pennsylvania in a blue collar, working class family. She said she had to work hard to put herself through college and has always worked two and three jobs.

Through the years, Toohil said her parents, Peter and Barbara, fostered more than 40 children, including her brother Brandon who tragically died when he was eight years old. Brandon's death, along with her parents' experience with the child welfare system, drove Toohil to become a tireless advocate for children.

Many years later in 2014, Toohil was an original co-founder of Brandon's Forever Home, a non-profit which does charitable work for children experiencing homelessness, abuse and neglect. Part of her brother's legacy is carried out by the organization making sure that children have proper access to food and nourishment.

In the pandemic year of 2020, Brandon's Forever Home distributed 138,694 pounds of food to area families and continues to be a resource on many fronts.

When she was 23, Toohil herself was a living kidney donor for her mother who had kidney failure. Due to this experience, she has worked to promote and advocate for other people to consider becoming living donors and to save lives by promoting organ donation. Her legislation, HB-203, to protect living kidney and liver donors from insurance loss and workplace discrimination is currently awaiting approval in the Pennsylvania Senate.

Toohil said campaigning has been difficult due to the pandemic. She has utilized social media and direct-mailing to get her message out.

Toohil said she hopes the voters who have loyally supported her while serving as a state representative will support her in her bid to become a judge.

"I have the confidence to be able to do this job," she said. "This is something that I've always wanted."

Reach Bill O'Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.

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