Hearing on solitary confinement ballot question scheduled

Oct. 17—Three Lackawanna County judges will hear arguments this week in a lawsuit that seeks to compel the county election board to approve a referendum regarding solitary confinement practices at the county prison.

PA Stands Up, a community advocacy group, sought to get the referendum on the November general election ballot.

Don Frederickson, solicitor for the board of elections, said there's no chance of that happening, however, because the ballots have already been printed. As of Tuesday, 18,816 were sent to voters who requested an absentee or mail-in ballot, of which 2,804 were already returned.

"It would be impossible for us to put it on the ballot at this point," Frederickson said. "There is not enough time now before Election Day to reprint the ballots."

The hearing on the dispute will still go on, however, because the court must decide whether the referendum is legally viable, officials said.

Should the judges rule in favor of the plaintiffs, the referendum could potentially appear on the May 2023 primary election ballot, Frederickson said. He said he needs to conduct further legal research on the matter.

The county recently filed a motion to dismiss PA Stands Up's Sept. 21 lawsuit that challenges the election board's Aug. 31 vote to reject the referendum, which seeks to alter the county's home rule charter to limit the conditions and circumstances under which prisoners are held in solitary confinement.

Volunteers with PA Stands Up and its sister organization, NEPA Stands Up, collected 13,665 signatures in support of the referendum, exceeding the 8,396 signatures required. The election board, which consists of the three commissioners, rejected the referendum based on county solicitor Frank Ruggiero's opinion it would not be proper subject matter for the home rule charter.

The motion to dismiss focuses on a technical legal argument relating to the required procedure to challenge the board's decision.

Ruggiero also addresses the merits of the suit, arguing the referendum, even if passed, would not be binding on the prison because control of the facility is vested with the seven-member prison board, not county commissioners, who sit on the board but are minority voting members. The election board is not obligated to place a nonbinding referendum on the ballot, he argues.

Jaclyn Kurin, attorney for PA Stands Up, has not yet filed a response to the motion. In an interview, Kurin said Ruggiero wrongly based his argument on a legal statute that gave prison boards exclusive control over prison operations. She said the state legislature repealed that statue in 2009.

"The board no longer has exclusive authority," Kurin said. "So you can't say the referendum is nonbinding."

A hearing on the matter is scheduled for Friday before President Judge Trish Corbett, Judge Margaret Bisignani Moyle and Senior Judge Carmen Minora.

Kurin said it's unclear what will happen if the judges side with her client, but agreed with Frederickson that it's possible the referendum could be placed on the May 2023 primary election ballot.

Frederickson said he needs to do additional legal research to determine whether the 2022 petitions signed by voters supporting the referendum would still be valid, or if the group would have to recirculate them from scratch.

Contact the writer: tbesecker@timesshamrock.com; 570-348-9137; @tmbeseckerTT on Twitter.