By Peter Becker
MILFORD - Pike County Court has ruled in favor of Mark E. Moulton, an attorney whose ballot race for Magisterial District Judge was challenged with questions if he was still a member of partisan political groups.
That means barring successful appeal or further filed objections, Moulton will face candidate Shannon Muir on the Republican ballot in the May 21st Primary.
Judge Arthur Zulick, specially presiding from Monroe County, issued his 13-page ruling on Monday. The Court found that Moulton had indeed resigned from the three organizations- the Blooming Grove Friends for a Better America, a Political Action Committee (PAC); Pike County Republican Committee and its subgroup, the Blooming Grove Republican Club.
In his opinion, the Judge added that the objectors aptly pointed out that Moulton's written resignations "could have been submitted in a way to better put his organizations and the voting public on notice."
Moulton had declared his resignations on February 18th at a meeting of PAC and Committee members in his law office, and on the next day he began collecting signatures for his ballot petitions. On the 18th he had provided a resignation letter to the treasurer of the PAC, and a resignation letter to a member of the Republican Committee, who was serving as acting chairman. Moulton later confirmed that he had resigned, at a meeting of the Club on Feb. 27, and at a Committee meeting on March 7.
Pennsylvania Rules Governing Standards of Conduct of Magisterial District Judges forbids district judges or a candidate for such office from engaging in partisan political activity, holding office in a political party or political organization, or publicly endorse a candidate.
The Court further stated that if the objectors had any other issues, they would need to be taken up under a different venue.
Although the complaint filed with the Court centered on the question of resignations, the objectors' legal counsel, Thomas Mincer, raised questions at the hearing about Moulton's campaign web site, lack of a formal committee to raise funds and the timing of change to a bank account for the PAC that listed Moulton as a signatory.
The web site in question, moulton4justice.com, was maintained by Moulton's father and had a button to click to make donations. It also continued to list Moulton's active involvement with the three political organizations, well into March. Candidate Moulton testified that he did not monitor or control the web site.
Judge Zulick commented in his written opinion, "Whether these facts amount to ethical lapses on Moulton's part is not a controlling question here. Where the question is simply a violation of magisterial district judges and the Election Code is not implicated, this court does not have jurisdiction." He cited case law stating that alleged violations of the Rules must come before the Court of Judicial Discipline. Only where a violation implicates both the Rules and the Election Code does the court of common pleas have jurisdiction.
Both candidates are practicing attorneys. Two other lawyers in Muir's law firm filed as objectors to the Republican petition, Muir's husband Mathew J. Galasso and Christopher R. Kimler.
Deciding on an appeal
Attorney Mincer stated that the objectors had 10 days (from the issuance of the Judge's ruling) to file an appeal with the Commonwealth Court. He said that would be decided within a few days, but candidate Muir needs to focus on her campaign.
He said it was also up to the objectors to decide if the other matters should be forwarded to the State Judicial Board. While there is no time limit to do this, Mincer advised that out of fairness this should be done quickly- within 10 days- if they decide to proceed any further.
Mincer, who still calls the way Moulton resigned as "secrecy," commented that there should be openness and clarity when someone is running for office. He said it was his personal opinion that regarding the steps Moulton took to announce his resignations, "doing the minimum is not enough." He called it "back door politics" which he said gives politicians a bad name.
Attorney Hugh Rechner, who is representing Moulton, remarked that the Court made the right decision. "He had the appropriate defenses for those issues," Rechner said.
Rechner said it was his opinion that the arguments used against his client were without merit, and an attempt to "throw them against the wall and see if they stick."
Other questions beyond the resignations, he said were collateral, and in his view were brought up at the hearing to have other issues to fall back on. Rechner noted that web sites are commonly not kept up in a timely manner.
"We have to be very careful with accusations, and not stifle the electoral process," Rechner added.
How it stands
Moulton is running for the magisterial district covering Palmyra, Blooming Grove and Greene townships, for the post being vacated by retiring Judge Jay Rose. Muir is running on both the Republican and Democrat tickets.
At this point, only the Republican voters in these three townships will have a choice to make on May 21st. Democrats will have only Muir on the ballot. Should Moulton prevail in the Primary, he will still face Muir in a ballot contest at the November General Election.
On the other hand, if Muir wins the Republican nomination at the Primary, she will be the lone candidate on the ballot in November.
Moulton had originally filed for the Democratic ticket as well. This petition was challenged in Pike County Court as well, but Moulton chose to withdraw his Democratic petition before testimony was heard. The objector's challenge in part dealt with a number of questionable signatures on the petition. Terezina DeMelo was the Democratic objector.