State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

Merit selection getting another try in a Senate proposal

Written by Mary Wilson, Capitol Bureau Chief | Jan 24, 2013 10:20 PM
Harrisburg Capitol building with fountain

Plans to select state judges based on merit rather than partisan elections in Pennsylvania have come and gone with little action, but this year a reform proposal comes as a state Supreme Court justice goes on trial.

Suspended Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin is pleading not guilty to charges she used her Superior Court staff to help with two campaigns for her seat on the state’s highest court.

Lynn Marks, with the reform group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said the alleged crime is an example of the kind of corruption that comes out of using partisan elections to choose all state judges – something only five other states do.

“We’re there with Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, West Virignia, and Illinois,” said Marks. “It’s just not a minority that we should be proud of. So many other states have realized that you’ve just got to get money out of judicial elections.”

A state Senate proposal aims to select appellate judges (those of the Commonwealth, Superior, and Supreme courts) based on merit instead.

In a bill introduced this week, Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia) has proposed to create an appointed commission that would select judicial candidates. Under the bill, the governor would make a nomination out of that group and the state Senate would confirm. Regular, nonpartisan, uncontested retention elections would follow.

Marks’ group helped draft the Senate proposal.

“We are not naïve enough to think that politics won’t play a part,” she said of the selection process, “but they’re not totally, totally based on politics, which is what elections are.”

Changing from elections to selections for appellate judges would require amending the state constitution – a heavy lift, especially for a proposal which, when it began in the state House last session, didn’t make it out of committee.

The measure would need to be passed in two consecutive legislative sessions, and then approved by a voter referendum.

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Published in State House Sound Bites

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Comments: 1

  • Golda img 2013-03-19 13:23

    It's disappointing that only one side of the story is presented here. Certainly, the reporter could have found someone who believes in the public's right to continue to vote for judges. I expect more from public radio.

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