State House Sound Bites

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

Some pour cold water on idea to appoint state judges

Written by Mary Wilson, Capitol Bureau Chief | Mar 31, 2013 9:46 PM

Legal observers are split on the idea of changing the way state appellate court judges are chosen. Reformers are calling for scrapping partisan elections in favor of an appointment process, but others aren't so sure.

Some state lawmakers and four former governors have lined up to support the so-called merit selection process - a proposal to start appointing judges with the help of a nominating commission, the sitting governor, and the state Senate.

Bruce Ledewitz, a professor at Duquesne University School of Law said the name itself is misleading - judges, he argues, are chosen as a matter of policy and politics, not just merit. He added he's never been able to make up his mind as to whether the merit selection is a good idea.

"Of course, the Pennsylvania supreme court is mired in constant scandal and is giving election a bad name," said Ledewitz. "But on the other hand, a lot of the problems we've had in Pennsylvania government go to the makeup of our political class, and in an appointment system, those are the people who will be deciding who's on the court."

The chief justice of the state Supreme Court suggests he's in no rush to support the idea of appointing appellate court judges, as happens for federal judges.

"In the federal system, you know who looks into your background if you want to be a judge?" Chief Justice Ron Castille asked the Pennsylvania Press Club last week. "It's a little group called the Federal Bureau of Investigation. And I've seen what they do when they, when somebody comes up to them as a potential candidate for the federal court. It's unbelievable."

"If you're going to have an appointment process in Pennsylvania, you have to have somebody like that," Castille continued. "You can't just have you know a bunch of lawyers, a bunch of people that the Senate and the governor appoint. You have to have an investigative body that can look into the background of any of these individuals."

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