Past and present Pennsylvania governors back changes to selection of judges
February 27, 2016 12:44 AM
Matt Rourke/Associated Press
The Pennsylvania Capitol building.
By Karen Langley / Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau
HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf and five past Pennsylvania governors, Republican and Democratic, are backing a proposal to change how the state selects judges for the statewide appellate courts.
Currently, appellate and trial court judges are selected for the bench in partisan elections and then can remain in office by winning nonpartisan retention elections. A proposal that cleared a House committee in October 2015 would institute a process known as merit selection for picking judges for the appellate courts.
Through merit selection, the governor would select a judge from a short list of applicants sent to him by a bipartisan nominating commission, whose members would be appointed by the governor and legislative leaders. The Senate would vote on the governor’s nominee. A successful confirmation vote would allow the Supreme Court justice or Superior Court or Commonwealth Court judge to serve an initial four-year term, after which he or she could stand in a nonpartisan retention election for subsequent 10-year terms.
On a conference call Friday moderated by the judicial watchdog group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, former Republican governors Tom Ridge and Mark Schweiker and former Democratic governor Ed Rendell spoke in support of merit selection.
The three former governors, along with Mr. Wolf and former Republican governors Tom Corbett and Dick Thornburgh, added their signatures to a Feb. 23 letter encouraging House members to support merit selection. There is no House vote scheduled at this time, said Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Republicans.
“Merit selection focuses on qualifications, not being a good campaigner for two years, not being a great fundraiser for five years or having a great ballot position on one day,” Mr. Schweiker said on the call. “And that’s what we’ve got right now.”
Mr. Rendell said that citizens must be skeptical when they see donors to judicial campaigns going before the judge in court. And he said voters are not well-informed about the candidates.
“People have no idea, no clue, who they’re voting for,” he said. ”The turnout on judicial elections is miserably low.”
In several recent elections in which judicial candidates were on the ballot, turnout was below 30 percent, according figures from the Department of State. In 2007, 29.45 percent of registered voters cast ballots, according to a department spokeswoman. In 2011, 26.16 percent voted. And in the 2015 election, 27.97 percent of registered voters voted, according to the unofficial count.
Not everyone is convinced the House proposal would improve the selection of judges. Rep. Joseph Petrarca, D-Westmoreland, voted against the House proposal in committee. He said in a phone interview that merit selection would still be a political process.
“Is it better to have that process transparent and open and before the electorate, or is it better to have that process in the hands of a politically chosen commission?” he said.
The House proposal would not change how Common Pleas or magisterial judges are selected. Candidates for the trial courts are often well-known in their communities, so voters know more about them than they do about the statewide judicial candidates, Mr. Ridge said on the call.
States choose their judges in a variety of ways. At the level of the state’s highest court, such as the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, nine states use partisan elections and 13 use nonpartisan elections for initial terms, according to the National Center for State Courts. Sixteen states use a commission-based system, like the Pennsylvania proposal, for initial terms, though the details of the systems differ. In 10 states, the governor can appoint anyone he or she wishes, subject to confirmation. And in two states, the legislature appoints justices.
The Pennsylvania proposal would require a change to the state Constitution, and so would have to be approved by the House and Senate in two consecutive legislative sessions and then receive approval from voters in a statewide election.
Karen Langley: firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-787-2141 or on Twitter @karen_langley
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