A question on the Nov. 5 ballot will ask voters if President Judge Russell Shurtleff should be retained for another 10-year term.
Voters elected Shurtleff to preside over the Wyoming-Sullivan County Court of Common Pleas in 2009 following the retirement of Senior Judge Brendan Vanston.
Previously, Shurtleff served as a magisterial district judge for 12 years and has private law experience.
He is a graduate of the Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law in Washington, D.C.
“My life has been community service focused and I think that started when I was a Boy Scout and later became an Eagle Scout,” Shurtleff said. “I’m a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, so service to country and community has been very important to me.”
Voters answered the same ballot retention question 20 years ago for Vanston. Shurtleff noted that voters will also see judges in higher Pennsylvania courts seeking retention this November.
This has been the standard practice for reelecting judges in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania since 1968, according to Jeff Brauer, professor of political science at Keystone College.
“What is happening in Wyoming County is what happens with judges all across the Commonwealth and several other states,” Brauer said.
Judges first undergo a partisan election, and after 10 years, a retention question rather than a standard election decides if a sitting judge will serve another term.
Some political scientists view this as a judge running unopposed, while Brauer considers it “running against themselves.”
Statistically, he said judges almost always get retained, with less than 2 percent receiving enough “no” votes to get removed from office.
On one hand, Brauer said retention questions give voters less choice. However, electing judges who are apolitical and unbiased remains a priority in the U.S., and a retention election prevents a judge from having to run another campaign and share one’s political views, he said.
“This way, we do allow them to be political when they run the first time, but they’re not sitting judges yet,” he said. “When they’re a sitting judge, they are extremely limited on the politics they can be involved in, and by doing a retention election, it means we never have a sitting judge engaged in heavy political activity.”
While judges have an alternative option for reelection, Brauer said it’s uncommon.
“It’s your decision whether you want to do a retention ballot or whether you want to circulate nominating petitions,” Shurtleff said. “For me, it just came down to the fact that it’s very important to me as a judge to make sure that individuals have timely access to courts. If you have a court hearing coming, I understand that it’s very stressful for people. I try to make sure that the matter can get in front of me as soon as possible. So with that in mind, I chose the retention so that I’m able to remain in court and continue to work for everyone.”
Shurtleff also noted that the retention question allows him to remain apolitical, which he has strived to do in his tenure as a judge.
“With the retention vote, the public has been able to see what you’ve done,”he said.
Besides keeping cases moving through the system, Shurtleff considers the development of specialty courts his greatest accomplishment as president judge.
“We have a DUI court, we have a drug court and we have a veterans track for specialty courts because jail is not always the answer for rehabilitation,” he said.
While individuals who are sent to jail receive services, he said they don’t always have employment or housing once released and may return to the same circumstances that got them incarcerated in the first place.
“Whereas in our specialty courts, they’re able to get their GED, drug and alcohol training, they’re required to obtain employment and the specialty courts are 2.5 years long, so that becomes a way of life for individuals,” he said. “When they graduate, the recidivism rate is much lower than with individuals released from prison without having those services.”
Shurtleff also noted that Wyoming County was the second county to receive state accreditation for its treatment court.
“We’ve done a lot of streamlining and extended court hours, so we’re able to get cases in and through timely,” he added. “I’ve done a lot of work with children, making sure that they have proper living, training for parents, and trying to give youth the best opportunities possible.”
If retained for another term, Shurtleff said his next goal would be to address mental health issues in the court system.
“The next specialty court that I would like to put together would be a mental health court,” he said. “That’s the same as individuals with drug and alcohol addiction. Jail is not a one size fits all deal. People don’t choose to have mental illnesses and we need to take that into account.”
Performing the duties of president judge have been a “great privilege” for Judge Shurtleff.
“I appreciate everyone’s comments and support for what I’ve been able to accomplish, and I would be very proud to serve another 10-year term,” he said.