Friday, November 01, 2013
Judge Jack Panella Needs Your Vote
Judge Panella is a rock star at the Northampton County Courthouse. When he drops by, everyone flocks to him, from President Judge to clerk. Though he's an appellate jurist, you'd never know it once the robe is off.
Lawyers tend to have a bad reputation because of assholes like me, who have engaged in unethical conduct and have had our tickets pulled. But there's an occasional crop of lawyers who represent the very best in that profession. Panella was in that group. After graduating, they teamed up and drove to Philly daily one summer in the same shitty car to study for the bar, scarfing hot dogs for lunch if they had money. This distinguished cadre of young men included John Morganelli (Northampton County DA), Jay Leeson (Bethlehem City Council), Phil Hof and Jack Panella (Superior Court Judge). They were all admitted to Northampton County's Bar together.
In this elite group of barristers, Panella excelled. He served as an assistant county solicitor, and was soon named County Solicitor, back when Gene Hartzell ran a very tight and happy ship in Northampton County. Panella was the youngest person ever named as the county's top legal eagle. He then became the second youngest person to serve as a Northampton County judge, being appointed to the bench in 1991.
During his days as a common pleas judge, Panella fell in love with running. "It saved my life," he tells me. If you run 5 ks anywhere in this state, you might be running with him. I remember driving with him and a collection of other lawyers like Mike Vedomsky, Danny Cohen and Phil Hof to run a ten mile race in Brooklyn one Sunday. Panella may have been a judge, but that day he was a runner.
Although he could stay on the bench forever in Northampton County, Panella is a scholar. So he decided to buck the odds and run for Superior Court. Amazingly, he won, and in 2004, he became an appellate judge.
Of fifteen superior court jurists, only Judge Jack Panella (Lehigh Valley) is from the eastern part of the state.
Being a superior court judge is a great honor, but it's also a lot of work. The judges literally ride the circuit. They spend one week each month in Pittsburgh, Harrisburg or Philly, sitting in three-judge panels to listen as lawyers argue that some lower court committed a legal error.
That's why the superior court is often called the court of second guess. It's where most appeals from a trial court are heard. The vast majority of the appeals filed last year, were from criminal convictions. Because the supremes are so reluctant to hear appeals, the superior court is usually the last bastion of hope for those seeking justice.
Panella told me he must write at least one opinion every day just to keep up with the workload. To give you an idea of what's involved, you must first sit down and read transcripts, a lower court opinion and the briefs filed by all sides to a dispute. Then you have to research the law yourself. It's almost as hard as blogging!
Panella has one piece of advice for lawyers arguing in the superior court - don't try to predict the outcome. "I'm almost always wrong when I try to guess how judges are going to decide something."
Panella would go on to run and lose in a Supreme Court race against Joan Orie Melvin, who was recently convicted of using state resources in support of her campaign. He was cheated out of the seat, but has no bitterness.
In addition to his work on the bench, Judge Panella has written several bench books to help trial judges. He also schedules periodic lectures, and earleier this year, sponsored a fascinating lecture about the only time the United States Supreme Court exercised original jurisdiction and conducted a criminal trial for contempt of court. It did so in a case involving a Sheriff who turned his head the other way when an innocent black man was lynched and hung.
A vote to retain Judge Panella is not a vote for him. It is a vote for us all.