State House Sound Bites

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

Former governors say judges should be appointed, not elected

Written by Mary Wilson, Capitol Bureau Chief | Mar 18, 2013 4:59 PM
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This entry has been edited since its original posting. 

For years, a dogged group of advocates have called for appointing appellate court judges in a multi-step process called merit selection, instead of holding partisan elections.

Supporters with Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts say relying on judicial elections all but ensures that judges aren’t independent arbiters of reason, but adept fundraisers. A ready example of just such a scenario is the recent conviction of suspended state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin on campaign corruption charges.

Now repeating the chorus are four former governors – Republicans Dick Thornburgh and Tom Ridge, and Democrats George Leader and Ed Rendell – who signed their names to a letter to state legislators and Gov. Corbett urging action on proposals to begin the years-long process of overhauling Pennsylvania’s method for choosing appellate court judges.

Opponents of the proposed multi-step process known as merit selection for appellate court judges say it wouldn’t be insulated from politics, and has the added downside of being less democratic than the current system.

“Voters have no idea who they’re voting for anyway. No idea, they have no clue,” said Rendell, in the same breath that he urged lawmakers to let voters decide if they want to switch to a merit selection process (such a move would ultimately depend on a voter referendum, as it would amount to a change to the state constitution).

Lynn Marks, head of PMC, said “it’s hard to get enough meaningful information about judges” that voters often can’t make informed decisions on Election Day. She said a vote on merit selection would be different. “That is a vote that people will be able to understand,” said Marks.

Former Republican Gov. Tom Ridge said the average voter in Pennsylvania knows judicial candidates’ party and the county where they live.

“And that’s it,” said Ridge. “And there’s no conceivable way that any well-intentioned citizen can make an appropriate decision based on that information alone.”

Merit selection would involve a citizens’ commission, the governor, and the state Senate, and then subject chosen judges to regular, nonpartisan retention elections.

Former Republican Gov. Dick Thornburgh said creating a merit selection process would move Pennsylvania’s system closer to what the founding fathers envisioned by allowing some public input in both the initial recommendation of judicial candidates and nonpartisan retention elections.

“I think what you’re getting is a combination of both systems by providing a safety valve, if a bad choice is made after four years it’s an opportunity to turn that person out of office,” said Thornburgh.

Before a question on merit selection can be put to voters, it must pass the Legislature in two consecutive legislative sessions. A state Senate proposal has yet to be considered in committee. Marks, with PMC, said similar legislation will soon be introduced in the state House.

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