On its merits: A new bill offers sense on judicial elections

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On Nov. 5, Pennsylvanians trudged to the polls with little noticeable enthusiasm and, in at least the judicial elections, perhaps little information. In picking judges they probably did not know and faced with a dearth of issues in the judicial races, many voters no doubt relied on vague name recognition, ethnicity of names or political affiliation — all of which have little to do with finding the best judge.

It was another game of pin the tail on the donkey (or the elephant) played out at polling places across the state. Nobody will know how the voters did until the judges take the bench. There must be a better way to select the most promising judge and still give voters a say.

That better way is merit selection. As typically suggested, a knowledgeable panel of lawyers and nonlawyers pick the candidates and the Senate confirms them (or not). If seated, they are subject later to a nonpartisan retention election for a 10-year term.

Last Tuesday, House members launched a bipartisan effort on behalf of such legislation for appellate court races. Sponsored by Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, and Rep. Brian Sims, D-Philadelphia, it has the backing of good-government groups such as the League of Women Voters and Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.

A change in the current system requires a state constitutional amendment, which must pass the Legislature in two consecutive sessions and then be approved by the voters in a referendum. That’s a tall order, but it’s past time that something was done. The expense of appellate court races is out of hand and all the money brings with it the threat of corruption — witness the troubles of disgraced former Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, who mixed state and political business in campaigning.

Similar bills have gone nowhere, but this one deserves to be judged on its considerable merits.

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