Appellate lawyers across the state said newly elected Pennsylvania Superior Court President Judge Susan Peikes Gantman has displayed a continuing interest in making the court more accessible and approachable both to attorneys and the public.
“Every time I argue before a panel Judge Gantman is on, she’s responsible for bringing in either college students or high school students to observe,” Willow Grove, Pa.-based appellate lawyer Howard J. Bashman said. “She’s done a miraculous job of bringing in the public, especially young people, to observe the court in action.”
Similarly, John J. Hare, chair of the appellate advocacy and post-trial practice group at Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin in Philadelphia, said Gantman has always been accomodating to the law clerks he’s brought with him to watch arguments, taking time out to speak with them after sessions.
“She’s very good about sort of removing any mystery from the court and making it accessible to people so they understand how it works,” Hare said.
Gantman told the Law Weekly that she believes it’s “important that the public has confidence in the judiciary.”
“We are an intermediate appellate court, an error-correcting court, and it’s important that appellants and appellees believe they have an opportunity to present their cases fairly,” Gantman said.
Robert L. Byer, head of the appellate practice at Duane Morris in Pittsburgh, added that Gantman was one of the early participants in the Superior Court’s efforts to hold argument sessions in more remote locations across the state.
Byer said Gantman has also taken steps to make the court more user-friendly for the attorneys who practice before it.
“When she presides, the argument list is broken up by time periods, so lawyers don’t have to wait an inordinate amount of time” to argue their cases, Byer said.
Gantman said she schedules cases in that manner to make it more convenient for appellate lawyers.
“Having been an appellate attorney, I find that’s a good way to schedule the cases so that [attorneys] can plan without having to stay in the courtroom the entire day,” Gantman said.
Gantman has not favored ease of access to all aspects of the court’s business, however.
She was among the judges who opposed the decision, made in late 2012 under former President Judge Correale F. Stevens, to begin posting nonprecedential opinions on the Internet.
Gantman told the Law Weekly that her opposition was simply based on her belief that posting those opinions, which are often very fact-specific, would be an arduous undertaking.
“We heard 7,940 cases in 2013,” Gantman said. “For that volume of cases to be placed on the Internet becomes a tremendous volume of work.”
Gantman did note, however, that the practice will continue despite her personal views.
“The board of judges voted to have the cases published and that will stand,” she said.
Gantman takes over as head of the court from Judge John T. Bender, who had been serving as acting president judge since last August, following Stevens’ appointment to the state Supreme Court.
The court, which had been constrained by Rule 701 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Judicial Procedure to wait until after noon Jan. 6 to pick a new president judge, voted Gantman into the role Jan. 7.
While Gantman said the judges did not discuss whether the vote was unanimous, she did say she had thrown her hat in the ring as a contender for president judge and was given the opportunity to present her credentials to each of the other 14 commissioned judges on the court.
Gantman said part of her new role will require her to oversee the management of the court’s three offices in Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, as well as management of the court’s staff.
Gantman added that the court is also currently working with the Supreme Court on an electronic filing system that she hopes will be up and running by the time her term as president judge ends.
As far as her work on the bench, Byer said Gantman is widely regarded has having a deep knowledge of family law because of her private practice background.
“I think of her as one of the stronger judges in the area of family law,” Byer said.
Prior to her election to the Superior Court in 2003, Gantman, of Montgomery County, was a senior member and co-chair of Cozen O’Connor’s family law section and, before that, a partner at now-defunct firm Sherr Joffe & Zuckerman.
Early in her career, Gantman was an assistant district attorney in Montgomery County.
Gantman’s ascension to the bench was not an easy one.
The 2003 Superior Court election was so close between Gantman, a Republican, and her Democratic opponent, Westmoreland County Court of Common Pleas Judge John Driscoll, that it took nearly two months of recounts before she was declared winner, by a margin of 28 votes.
It was considered the smallest margin of victory of any statewide race in the past century and it led the Democrats to seek a federal injunction barring certification of the election results in Gantman’s favor.
The injunction was denied, however, and Gantman was sworn in in early January 2004.
Since then, Gantman has been involved in several high-profile cases in a wide range of practice areas, both as majority leader and vocal minority.
For example, when a split en banc panel in the 2012 case Bratic v. Rubendall found that a trial court had improperly based its decision tomove a suit against Harrisburg law firm Keefer Wood Allen & Rahal from Philadelphia to Dauphin County on the consideration that none of the defendants were from Philadelphia, Gantman disagreed.
Gantman filed a 15-page dissenting opinion, joined by Bender and Judge Cheryl Lynn Allen, arguing that while the trial court did improperly rely on the defendants’ location in its analysis, that was only a “single misstep” and “did not lead to an abuse of discretion.”
“There is no indication in the court’s opinion that it gave this one factor undue weight or based its decision to transfer the case solely on the location of appellants’ home and offices,” Gantman said. “Importantly, the court held appellees to the proper burden.”
Bratic is currently awaiting a ruling from the Supreme Court.
Gantman has also led the court in some important cases as of late.
In the 2010 case In the Interest of A.B., Gantman wrote for a 7-2 majority of the court en banc, holding that the state’s expungement statute, found at Section 9123 of the Criminal History Information Act, requires a juvenile’s expungement petition to be granted unless a prosecutor can provide the court with a specific reason justifying preservation of a juvenile’s record.
In 2011, Gantman led a unanimous three-judge panel in Butler v. Charles Powers Estate, one of the most significant oil and gas opinions to come through the appellate courts since the Marcellus Shale boom, in reversing a Susquehanna County trial judge’s order sustaining a pair of landowners’ preliminary objections to the heirs to an estate who claimed the reservation of rights for “minerals” in a land deed’s exception included Marcellus Shale gas.
Gantman said there were still questions as to whether shale is a mineral, whether shale gas is conventional natural gas and whether shale is analogous to coal in that its owner also owns the gas contained within it.
“On this record, we are unable to say with certainty that appellants have no cognizable claim based on the facts averred,” said Gantman. “Consequently, the parties should have the opportunity to obtain appropriate experts on whether Marcellus shale constitutes a type of mineral such that the gas in it falls within the deed’s reservation.”
While Gantman remanded the case to the trial court, the Supreme Court eventually reversed the ruling, finding that there was no need for a scientific debate to determine whether shale and the natural gas contained within it fell under the definition of “minerals” for the purposes of deed reservations.
Ultimately, the justices found that shale and natural gas were not minerals.