Ex-governors seeking merit selection of Pennsylvania appellate judges

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Four former Pennsylvania governors have joined together to urge the state Legislature to begin the process of exploring merit selection for the commonwealth's appellate court judges.

The men -- Republicans Tom Ridge and Dick Thornburgh and Democrats Ed Rendell and George Leader -- sent a letter on the issue to every member of the state House and Senate earlier this month, in which they said, "This is an issue that transcends politics, party lines and individual agendas."

They have been using as a talking point the recent criminal case of suspended state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, who was found guilty of using her judicial staff, as well as the Senate staff of her sister, to campaign for her.

"The conviction of a Supreme Court justice for campaign corruption is just one more example that highlights the need for reform," the governors wrote in their letter. "Electing appellate court judges in divisive, expensive, partisan elections is not working for the people of Pennsylvania."

On Monday, three of the former governors joined with Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, in a conference call to discuss the issue.

They are advocating for merit selection, which is a hybrid of an appointive and elective system.

An independent panel of attorneys and lay people would screen applicants and forward the top five nominees to the governor for appointment.

That person would serve for four years, and then go up for a 10-year retention election.

The proposed method would not change the election process for magisterial or common pleas court judges.

Mr. Ridge said judicial candidates should not be fundraising or campaigning.

"That whole process casts a very dark shadow over the integrity and independence of our judicial system."

While the executive and legislative branches of government should be subject to popular opinion, Mr. Ridge said, it should not be that way with the judiciary.

"The third branch was set up to be an independent body, whose judgment is absolutely critical to the other two branches of government ... in upholding the Constitution and not public opinion."

Mr. Rendell said that polls have shown that individual voters often have no information about the judicial candidates they vote for at the polls.

"It's just a system that doesn't work," he said. "The influence of money in judicial elections is pernicious and creates a feeling among regular folks that justice is for sale."

The governors are asking that the Legislature take up the issue. Legislation was recently introduced in the Senate and is now in the judiciary committee.

The process would include having the Legislature vote on the issue in two consecutive sessions, which would then allow it to be put to a referendum.

The letter quotes a study conducted for Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts that showed that 93 percent of people polled would like to vote on the issue.

electionspa - state

Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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