(Editor's note: this the second installment in a series of articles on the state Supreme Court candidates.)
Environmental Hearing Board Judge Michael L. Krancer says a devotion to public service and a desire to improve the judiciary propelled him from a career as a litigator to the bench eight years ago.
Now, Krancer says the same values have him on the campaign trail in a three-way Republican primary election for two seats on the state Supreme Court. If elected, the Montgomery County native says, he will bring the multifaceted experience of a career litigator with a drive to improve the court's transparency and discourse with the Pennsylvanians it serves.
"I had some bad experiences as a lawyer coming up through the ranks, very infrequent, but one or two are seared into the mind," Krancer said. "What motivated me to become a judge is my experience with some judges who had forgotten they were public servants and forgot that they owed full and 100 percent attention to the cases in front of them.
"I had clients asking me after the fact, 'is this what the court system is all about?' They were upset. Frankly I was upset," Krancer said.
Krancer said those experiences helped him form a steadfast belief in the responsibilities a judge holds.
"When you put on that black robe you have to understand what impression you're making on lawyers and citizens that come before you," he said.
Krancer said he thought he could do the job well, and so, after 17 years as a litigator with a pair of Philadelphia firms, he sought appointment to the state's Environmental Hearing Board in 1999.
"You have to be on your 'A' game every day, every hour, 365 days a year because you do work for the public all the time. There is no thing as off hours when you're a judge, in my opinion," Krancer said.
Krancer said he applies those beliefs to his work as chief judge of the state Environmental Hearing Board, a statewide trial court that hears appeals of actions by the Department of Environmental Protection, serves as the court of original jurisdiction for certain environmental matters and issues opinions on matters of procedure. In his time on the board, Krancer has issued 95 opinions.
Academic at Heart
Krancer attended the University of Virginia and graduated in 1980 with a bachelor's degree in economics and went on to attend Washington & Lee University School of Law in Lexington, Va.
"I love the law. I am probably an academic at heart. I did very well in law school," Krancer said.
He graduated summa cum laude and was elected to the Order of the Coif. Krancer also served as a writer and editor for the law review, which he credits for his skill and love for legal writing.
"I didn't go to college thinking I would go to law school," Krancer said. "The decision to go to law school was one I reached during my college years."
Krancer said he realized as an undergraduate that he wanted a profession, but wasn't interested in medicine or business.
"I wanted to go to professional school. I loved government, studied government, studied economics, studied politics. I loved to write - loved to read. It seemed like law school was the place for me to be after college," he said.
On graduating, Krancer secured a position with, then, Duane Morris & Heckscher practicing real estate law, but left after a year for a litigation job with Dilworth Paxson, where he became a partner and stayed until 1992.
Krancer then went to Blank Rome, where his litigation practice included federal and state court commercial cases in environmental, contract, patent, trademark and other areas of the law.
Krancer said he loved working as a litigator.
"It was fun, challenging. I enjoyed solving problems for my clients. I represented a wide array of clients, from corporations to a college professor," he said.
Krancer said it was during that period of his career he learned how important the matters before a court are to the litigants and how litigants want judges as well as their counsel to be on top of the case.
"Clients live and die with their cases," Krancer said. "In some cases, literally, at least economically, [they] live or die with their cases. I learned to treat every case that way. For that client, it is the most important thing going on in that client's life at that moment.
"The worst thing you can do is leave the impression with the client that you have something more important to do that trumps what they have in front of them. It's the same thing with a judge."
As a candidate for Supreme Court, Krancer said his experience as a litigator and his knowledge of trial techniques are an asset.
"I think that is critical, that judges on the bench have time in the trenches, so to speak," he said. "I think it serves many functions because it allows judges to understand litigation and litigation process, and it allows them to understand what is going through the client's mind, the citizen that is in front of them, it allows them to empathize."
Krancer said he sees litigators as legal "jacks of all trades, and masters of all."
He said he recalls becoming a quasi-expert in organic chemistry for a patent case on a petrochemical process.
"I took a thousand-page book home and read it over the weekend. Now I have to do that so I can communicate with my own expert, so I can cross examine a Ph.D. who's coming in front of me," he said. "I see a litigator being the most broad, experienced type of lawyer. My experience as a litigator has served me well every day I have been on the bench."
Krancer said the breadth and depth of the cases over which he presides at the Environmental Hearing Board make him uniquely qualified to move to the state Supreme Court.
The board is unique in that it is the only trial court that presides over matters from all 67 Pennsylvania counties. The five-judge panel also functions as an appellate body.
He said the process of analyzing cases, understanding the statutes and applying the law translates directly to the work of a state Supreme Court justice.
"I have the luxury of being able to spend many many hours on a fine, fine point if I need to, and I will do so," Krancer said. "We deal with highly complex cases. Our opinions are highly complex opinions on both law and fact."
One Clear AdvantageKrancer said he has one clear advantage over the other candidates in what is predicted to be a state appellate court election charged by the politics of the 2005 judicial pay raise.
In that year, former Justice Russell Nigro lost his retention bid and former Justice Sandra Schultz Newman was retained by an unusually slim margin after a heavy campaign.
Krancer said he is frequently asked about the pay raise and has a handy answer: "I did not get that pay raise."
"I'll be the only candidate in the mix who didn't get the pay raise," he said.
Krancer said he believes the pay raise will be a factor in the election. He said he believes the legislation granting the salary increase to members of the General Assembly, executive branch officials and state judges was improperly passed.
Krancer also said he disagrees with the Supreme Court majority's opinion stripping legislators of their pay raise while allowing judges to keep theirs. Krancer said he isn't convinced by the argument that judges need more money.
"I know where to get a pay raise," he said. "I'll go back to private practice."
Krancer's personal finances have become an issue, however, in a challenge to his statement of financial interest.
In an interview last week, Krancer would only say: "It's a frivolous lawsuit, and I'm looking beyond it."
Filed by a retired Philadelphia court employee who worked in the city's Family Court where Krancer's Republican opponent Paul P. Panepinto also worked, the complaint alleges Krancer failed to list investment income, as well as a loan for a Mercedes-Benz automobile co-signed by his wife Barbara Krancer.
In a hearing March 27 before Commonwealth Court Senior Judge James R. Kelley in Harrisburg, Krancer's main defense was that the alleged omissions were a result of his belief that candidates are required only to list earned income or sole debts.
During the hearing, attorneys for the petitioner Jaime Hughes-Harbison said her goal was to find out how Krancer was supporting his lifestyle on the $127,000 state salary he earns as a judge.
The hearing allowed insight into the Main Line scion's lifestyle, which he revealed is funded in part by his father's wealth. Krancer, who grew up in Villanova, and lives in an 18-room Lower Merion Township home, is a great-grandson of media mogul Moses Annenberg and a great-nephew of Walter Annenberg.
In addition to Panepinto, Krancer is competing with Superior Court Judge Maureen Lally-Green for the Republican nomination May 15. While Krancer and Lally-Green share their party's endorsement, Krancer was rated only as "recommended" by the Pennsylvania Bar Association's Judicial Evaluation Commission. Lally-Green and Panepinto received the commission's highest rating of "highly recommended."
Crisis of ConfidenceOn the Supreme Court, Krancer said he would work to improve the way the court is perceived by the public and the legal profession.
"I see a crisis in confidence in the court system," he said. "There are some issues that have come to public attention lately that have to do with how the court does business."
The first problem, he said, is transparency in the way the court conducts its business. Krancer said he believes the court's rule-making process must be open to the public.
"My court has rule-making that is in the open, pursuant to a committee that is in a public meeting. Then our rule-making is promulgated in the Pennsylvania Bulletin," he said. "To me that's normative."
Too often, Krancer said, Supreme Court rules come as a surprise to the lawyers who must abide by them. He recalls being blindsided by a new disciplinary rule as a member of the Montgomery Bar Association board.
"The lawyers at the executive committee coming down and saying this just came down caught us by surprise. That shouldn't happen," Krancer said.
Krancer said he also believes that too often the court hands down decisions without a written opinion.
"Written opinions are, to me, foundational to our system of justice," he said. "It's the only way that the community or the citizens know what the reasons are for the decision being given."
Krancer cites U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's writing about the importance of written opinions to a system of jurisprudence than can live into posterity. Krancer said on matters of political sensitivity, written opinions are "absolutely critical."
He points to the state Supreme Court's 2002 decision that, upon his constitutional succession to the office, Lt. Gov. Robert C. Jubelirer did not have to relinquish his position as the president pro tempore of the state Senate. The decision came in a two-sentence per curiam order without oral argument.
"The public needs to know the reasons for a decision especially when it's a politically sensitive one," he said.
"For me writing an opinion is normative. It's important to the system. It's critical to the system and I don't frankly understand why we're in the position of having to say we don't have a written opinion. To me, that ought to be a given."