State House Sound Bites

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

Advocate says voters could do with less judicial choice

Written by Mary Wilson, Capitol Bureau Chief | Nov 4, 2013 9:24 PM
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Supporters of scrapping the state's method of electing appellate judges say this year's election is a study in why a new way of picking judges would be better for the commonwealth.

Just one statewide judicial contest graces the ballot this Election Day, and for Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts director Lynn Marks, it prompts one question: "How much do you know about the people you'll be voting for... for judge?"

Not much, she'll wager.

Marks has often said it's too hard for voters to get the information they need to choose appellate judges based on their qualifications, which is why she has long pushed for merit selection of appellate judges.

Under such a system, candidates would be vetted by an independent commission, nominated by the governor, and confirmed by the state Senate before ultimately facing voters in retention elections.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the idea has the support of several former governors. Trial lawyers have been among the most reliable critics of the proposal. At least one sitting judge has raised concerns as well. This year, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Castille said any merit selection process would need an independent "investigative body" to be as inoculated as possible from politics.

This fall, the most news coverage the Superior Court judicial election received this fall came when the Pennsylvania Bar Association reprimanded the Republican candidate for running what the group called a "misleading" ad about his Democratic opponent.

"There seems to be more coverage of things like that as opposed to whether these people are qualified or not," Marks said. But it's not just that voters have too little information, she added. Campaign spending is increasing, and would-be judges are raising money from the very people who have business before the court: lawyers and interest groups.

The website PoliticsPA reported last week that Superior Court Democratic candidate Jack McVay for Superior Court has raised more than $48,000 and spent about $15,000, while Republican candidate Vic Stabile has raised more than $81,000 and spent more than $68,000.

Marks said she expects a constitutional amendment providing for merit selection to be introduced next week in the state Senate and House. Similar legislation has been introduced earlier this year but received no action in committee.


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