Bipartisan Pennsylvania Bill: Merit Selection of Appellate Judges

— by Kenneth R. Myers, Esq.

A bill to bring merit selection of appellate judges to Pennsylvania has been submitted in the State House of Representatives with a bipartisan sponsorship this week.

Pennsylvania State Representatives Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster County) and Brian Sims (D-Philadelphia) introduced the bill, which received immediate support from Pennsylvania’s current governor Tom Corbett (R) and previous two governors, Ed Rendell (D) and Tom Ridge (R), as well as the League of Women Voters and Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.

More after the jump.
The bill by Cutler and Sims would establish merit selection for appeal court judges only, while retaining the present method of judicial elections for all other courts and justices of the peace. Affected would be future judges of the Commonwealth Court, Superior Court and Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

A bipartisan merit selection panel of fifteen citizens, selected by the governor and legislature, would propose a list of judicial candidates for each vacancy. The candidate chosen by the governor and confirmed by the State Senate would serve as a judge for a short term, and then would face a retention election without opponents in order to hold his or her chair. Retention elections at ten-year intervals would continue to apply to all judges.

The bill proposes an amendment to the state Constitution, and so must pass the legislature in two consecutive sessions, and then go before the people in a public referendum before taking effect.

Pennsylvania has been electing its judges only since the state Constitutional Convention of 1968. Those seeking election to our appellate courts typically visit county political committees across the state, seeking endorsement by one party or the other. In order to advertise and travel they have to raise substantial funds, and the usual sources are lawyers and law firms, that are likely to have business before the same courts.  

In the most recent election for a seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, each side was reported to have spent over $2 million. The successful candidate, Joan Orie Melvin, was subsequently convicted of election law violations, and suspended from her position.  

“Judges are different from officials in the legislative and executive branches so it makes sense to select them differently,” the Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts executive director, Lynn Marks, said.

Judges must decide cases solely on the facts and the law, not based on political considerations, platforms or constituencies. It just doesn’t make sense to have a totally partisan process for a nonpartisan job. And the problem with money in judicial races is that most of the money comes from attorneys and special interests that often appear in state courts.

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  1. says

    Right … even lawyers, many of whom do not go to court, do not know how to choose among so many candidates. And after ballot position, a second key factor in who wins the election is the local political committee that sits at the polls on election day and hands out “sample ballots.”

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