With the appointment of Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, as majority chairwoman of the Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee, nonlawyers are now heading each of the legislative committees in the General Assembly tasked with addressing legal issues.
Baker was appointed to the leadership role Monday. The longtime public servant replaced retired Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, a former trial attorney, who had headed the committee for more than 30 years.
Her counterpart in the state House of Representatives, Rep. Rob W. Kauffman, R-Franklin, was appointed as majority chairman of the House Judiciary Committee on Jan 2. He replaced retired Rep. Ron Marsico, a longtime chairman of the committee, who was not an attorney.
It was unclear Tuesday whether Baker’s appointment marked the first time the majority leaders for both the Senate and House judiciary committees were held by nonlawyers, but attorneys and court-watchers said they were not concerned.
Political analyst G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, said typically attorneys serve in these leadership roles, given how directly the issues delve into technical legal topics. However, he said, the committee leaders have knowledgeable staff who should be able to provide guidance on the issues.
“I don’t think it’s a prerequisite for the position,” Madonna said. “And ultimately, the vote still has to go through the committee, and then to the floor, where a lot of nonlawyers get involved.”
In an interview Tuesday, Baker said her lengthy background in both the legislative and executive branches, including serving as deputy chief of staff to former Govs. Tom Ridge and Mark Schweiker, should give her a fresh perspective on the role.
She also noted that with a father who was an attorney, a staff committee director who is a longtime Pennsylvania attorney and having worked previously with Greenleaf, she has longstanding ties to the legal community. Baker also sited her work on criminal justice issues, including juvenile justice reform and victim advocacy, as giving her insight into some of issues that might arise.
For now, Baker said she is conducting a listening tour with stakeholders across Pennsylvania, and has already met with some members of the judiciary in her district.
“I want to conduct a full and thoughtful analysis of where we are, what’s been accomplished and what’s outstanding,” she said. “I want to listen and learn and really work to bring people together to get things accomplished.”
The judiciary committee is a high-profile legislative group, and one that would be first in line to deal with hot-button topics such as grand jury reform or changes to the statute of limitations for sex abuse cases, should the legislature seek to tackle those issues.
Several attorneys serve on the judiciary committees, and the minority chairmen, Rep. Tim Briggs, D-Montgomery, and Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, are both attorneys as well.
Kleinbard attorney Matthew Haverstick, who has often represented legislators in legal matters, said he knows Baker to be a smart and skilled legislator, and added that he would rather have someone like her in the role than a mediocre legislator “who happened to have a J.D.”
“This chairmanship involves discussing and looking at really critical policy issues, and while they do involve legal issues, I don’t think you need to be formally trained as a lawyer to really understand the policy issues underlying the legislation that comes out of these committees,” he said.
He agreed that, with staff and resources from the broader senate leadership, non-attorneys on the committee should be able to become fully versed in the topics that might arise.
Schmidt Kramer attorney Scott Cooper, who is active in legislative matters impacting torts and insurance, said that, ideally, the top leadership spots would be held by an attorney, however, he agreed that, with a knowledgeable and receptive staff, judiciary committee leaders can be successful without having law degrees.
“There are also less lawyers in the legislature than ever,” he said, pointing to a trend echoed by others.
According to a list of the turnover compiled by the website Ballotpedia, five attorneys, including three from the House and two from the Senate, lost re-election bids during the 2018 election season. That list did not include retirements, such as Greenleaf.
Kauffman did not return a call seeking comment, but, in a statement last week, stressed the need to mitigate the opioid addiction epidemic in Pennsylvania.