News & Politics

State Senate examines gubernatorial line of succession law

The hearing comes after Lt. Gov. John Fetterman temporarily gave up duties after suffering a stroke

Gov. Tom Wolf and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman

Gov. Tom Wolf and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman Commonwealth Media Services

Laws governing Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial line of succession were tested this past spring when Lt. Gov. John Fetterman temporarily relinquished his duties after suffering a stroke on May 13. 

Fetterman’s medical event triggered a seldom-used state law that outlines how temporary vacancies in the executive branch are handled – a process that state lawmakers reviewed on Monday during a public hearing to determine how Pennsylvania’s law on disability procedures measures up with those of other states. 

The hearing featured testimony from legislative experts across the country who largely agreed that Pennsylvania’s 1974 law is in line with the procedures of other states. 

Thirteen other states – as well as two U.S. territories – have the same process as Pennsylvania, where a legislator is elevated to the role of lieutenant governor in an acting capacity. In nine states and two U.S. territories, an acting lieutenant governor is appointed, with state legislatures playing a role in the appointment process, according to testimony given to the Senate State Government Committee on Monday.

Pennsylvania’s Governor and Lieutenant Governor Disability Procedure Law, as it is known, currently allows a governor to notify state lawmakers in writing when they are temporarily unable to discharge their duties. In such cases, the lieutenant governor will take over as acting governor until the governor submits another written declaration stating that they can resume their duties. 

The lieutenant governor and a majority of cabinet officials may also deem that a governor is unable to fulfill their duties in the event of a disability – a period that ends once the governor declares they are able to resume their duties. Similar statutes apply to the lieutenant governor and were utilized this year after Fetterman suffered his stroke, elevating state Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman to the role of acting lieutenant governor.

While Pennsylvania’s law governing temporary absences and disabilities in the executive branch matches up with the status quo, experts who testified said there are areas where state lawmakers can improve the law. 

For instance, lawmakers can remove outdated references to telegrams and other means of communication that are no longer relevant, according to Brian Roberts, the chair of the political science department at Principia College. 

This is an area where you try to imagine the unthinkable. Things that at some point seem unthinkable, like a severe terrorist attack or a pandemic, when they play out, then you'd like to be prepared.
Professor Brian Gaines

“The references to telegrams at one point could potentially be updated to be as general as possible, so as to not appear as being antiquated either currently or many years from now,” Roberts said.

The statute could also be updated to allow for situations where a governor or lieutenant governor is unable to discharge their duties due to reasons outside of a medical or physical disability, such as a kidnapping. 

Brian Gaines, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois, said that while the idea of a kidnapping may sound unlikely, the foiled plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer shows that state lawmakers should be prepared for unlikely-yet-possible scenarios. 

“This is an area where you try to imagine the unthinkable. Things that at some point seem unthinkable, like a severe terrorist attack or a pandemic, when they play out, then you’d like to be prepared,” Gaines said. 

Gaines added that it might be prudent for lawmakers to require someone with a medical background to help determine whether or not a governor or lieutenant governor is unable to perform their duties.

“Quite a few states make sure that somebody – the head of a medical school or someone with medical knowledge – is involved in a determination where there’s any sort of controversy about whether an incapacity exists or persists,” Gaines said. “That’s something that I think in Pennsylvania, at present, is only accidentally present.”