By Sandy Scarmack
Herald Staff Writer
MERCER COUNTY —
This year marks the first time in the county’s 209 years as a judicial district that voters have the opportunity to choose a new judge, while also deciding whether to retain an existing one.
The retirement of Judge John C. Reed has left an open seat on the bench, for which five local lawyers are running, while Judge Christopher St. John will be on the ballot in the fall, seeking a retention vote.
State law prohibits any competition for a seated judge, allowing only a yes or no retention vote, which would secure the position for another 10 years. St. John, the 26th presiding judge, announced on May 1, also recognized as “Law Day,” his intention to seek re-election.
St. John acknowledges it is difficult for the voting public to have much to go on when deciding on a retention vote, particularly if they haven’t had occasion to be in front of the judge.
“Generally people garner an image from second-hand information and media reports. Since I ran in a popular election and I campaigned at that time, people had an opportunity to get to know more about me. So I would ask ‘has anything happened since then to lose your confidence in me?’ ”
Most retention votes support re-election, but there have been times when judges aren’t retained, though that has not happened locally. Because St. John cross-filed when he was initially elected, he is a candidate of both parties, though that has the possibility to work against him in the general election. “If people vote straight-party ticket, I’m not affiliated with either party. I won’t get those votes.”
His name won’t be on Tuesday’s ballot, because the retention question is asked only in the general election, but voters will have the opportunity in the primary election to chose candidates for the open judicial seat. There has been controversy surrounding that race as well, after challenges were filed in court to the nominating petitions of three of the five candidates.
“That hasn’t happened before either. That really isn’t the way we do things up here,” St. John said, referring to the challenges. He suggested voters consider the length of the candidate’s experience, their records of community service and the relevancy of their practice to the court of common pleas.
“Unfortunately Mercer County has lost 39 years of judicial experience in the last two years because of the mandatory retirement of former President Judge Francis J. Fornelli and the Honorable John C. Reed. A new judge will be elected this year in an unrelated campaign to fill the vacancy left by Judge Reed’s retirement. I hope that voters recognize the critical need in this election to keep well-trained and experienced jurists to maintain a balance of new and old blood on the bench,” he said.
Of his last nine years on the bench, St. John said, “This is a great job.”
St. John said he will be campaigning, but not with signs in yards, nor with an election committee. “I’ve decided not to accept contributions, so as to maintain my independence and not be beholden to anyone. It will also reduce any potential conflicts of interest in my next term.”
He plans to attend local events and meet people through those venues, he said.
The biggest surprise of his first term on the bench, he said, was the number of times he’s required to sign his name. “All the official correspondence has to have a judge’s signature. It’s a lot of times a day I’m signing my name,” he said.
He also does some other writing that voters would know nothing of.
“I get a lot of ‘jail mail.’ Inmates who want to correspond with me after their sentencing,” he said. “While you might expect that the majority of that mail would be pleas for release, more often than not, it’s a thank-you note.”
He points to a handwritten letter laying on his desk Friday afternoon, written by an inmate from the state penitentiary in Ohio, whom St. John had sentenced to jail.
“Here it is five months later and he’s clean, working all the drug and alcohol programs he can and he’s doing really well. He wanted to let me know that he’s focused and clear-headed. He thanked me for saving his life. I actually get that a lot,” he said.
St. John said he answers the letters.
“I congratulate them. I offer some words of encouragement and let them know I believe they can succeed.
“Sometimes, sending someone to jail is helping them. It’s the help we can give,” he added.
St. John is a 1970 graduate of Kennedy Catholic High School and earned a bachelor of science degree in law enforcement and corrections from Penn State University in 1974. He graduated with honors in 1983 with a juris doctorate degree from the Cleveland Marshall College of Law, where he also served as the editor-in-chief of the Cleveland State Law Review.
He is a former law clerk for the Honorable Francis J. Fornelli and served as an assistant public defender for 19 years. He was also a partner in the former Greenville law firm of Rowley, Wallace, Keck, Karson and St. John.