This writer grew up as a Republican and recalls with some fondness the wars in the 1970s between liberal “Rockefeller” Republicans and conservative “Reaganites.” The fight was for the soul of the party, whatever that was. But those battles were pretty tame compared with today.
On March 18 of this year Republican Jeff Bartos announced for the Senate seat now occupied by Pat Toomey. Two months later Sean Parnell announced that he would contest the Republican nomination. Suffice to say that there are some social and ideological issues separating these candidates despite their common Republican heritage.
A week ago, a certain former President announced he was backing Parnell. Bartos responded that Parnell was unelectable because of his history of being charged with domestic violence by his former spouse.
Based on reports in the Philadelphia Inquirer here is what has emerged so far. In the Summer of 2017 and again in 2018 Butler County entered temporary protection from abuse orders on Mr. Parnell. In the first incident, he was ordered to leave the residence he shared with his spouse. Orders of this kind are entered by judges premised upon allegations that the defendant put the plaintiff in fear of immediate bodily injury. These temporary orders are entered without a formal hearing although the rules require that a hearing with testimony must take place within ten (10) days unless the parties agree to postpone a final decision.
Hearings of this kind are often postponed. A judicial finding of abuse can result in the eviction of a defendant from his/her residence for up to three (3) years. That’s a long time, so the ten-day hearing is often delayed by agreement while the couple negotiate. In the 2017 incident the case was withdrawn by agreement of both husband and wife after 13 days. In 2018 when a second set of charges were filed by wife there was a hearing, but a judge dismissed, suggesting that the court found no danger of immediate bodily harm. In 2018 Mr. Parnell counter sued claiming he was the victim of his wife’s physical abuse. It seems that request was denied as well.
Under Pennsylvania law, parties can ask that these records be expunged. That seems to have occurred here. It appears that the news we do have is derived from records retained by the Butler County Sheriff. The sheriff is tasked with serving orders on people charged with civil abuse. They retain these records because law enforcement is often involved in enforcing “stay away” orders under the Protection from Abuse statute.
We don’t know the specific allegations which Parnell’s wife levied in either of her cases. But she knows, and chances are she kept her records. Abuse charges can range from “I was pushed against a wall” to “the first shot went over my left shoulder.” Statistically, almost half of filed protection cases are either withdrawn (21%) or dismissed because the plaintiff does not appear for the hearing (26%). Of those that are tried almost 80% result in a finding that protection was needed. But only 22% of the cases are tried and another 19% are resolved by some form of agreement. Many judges and lawyers see the system as one rife with efforts to use the law to gain exclusive possession of a house or an edge in custody proceedings. Meanwhile the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence reported that 109 people were killed in the Commonwealth last year in domestic confrontations, 40% by family members. Domestic violence has no demographic profile. It occurs among wealthy and highly educated families as well as those not so advantaged. People of all stripes are angry, and it is showing by the fact that Pennsylvania routinely has about 750 abuse petitions filed each week.
So, until we know more about what happened between Candidate Parnell, his wife and his four kids, it’s not really fair to say whether his conduct at home should affect his suitability to hold public office. All we really know today is that one case was withdrawn by agreement and a second was dismissed because wife did not meet her burden of proof that there was bodily harm, whether real or threatened. But with a custody case pending and a trial set for November, it would seem clear today that his conduct with his family will continue to be scrutinized and campaign operatives will continue to search for the expunged records of what was alleged in the past.