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Could the Era of Judicial Elections Be Coming To An End?

Members of the legislature are proposing reforms to the judicial selection process. A hearing in Philadelphia brought to the forefront what bills could move in the General Assembly.

There was a public hearing on merit selection of appellate judges on Thursday, which occurred at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Judiciary Committee Chair Representative Ron Marsico, R-Dauphin, scheduled the hearing.

Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts (PMC) states that merit selection is “designed to ensure that the most qualified, fair, and impartial judges reach the appellate bench” and to “open up pathways to the bench for qualified Pennsylvanians from all regions and of all backgrounds.” The proposals for merit selection would not affect local trial courts.
Concerns with retainment elections include: the expenses associated with campaign fundraising, concerns over dollar influences during fundraising and corruption once the judge successfully obtains the seat.

Elections have become increasingly more expensive in recent years. The Daily News cites the 2009 battle between Republican Joan Orie Melvin and Democrat Jack Panella for a state Supreme Court justice seat. Melvin v. Panella set a record in campaign fundraising for a court post at $5 million.

Bob Heim, the board chairman of PMC, believes that money needs to be taken out of the judicial system and completely supports merit selection. Heim fears that if judges continue to campaign for election, things could get messy.

“Although most judges follow the law, there is the perception that they may not if they have accepted campaign money from lawyers arguing before them,” Heim stated.
Lynn A. Marks, the Executive Director of PMC and PMCAction, shares the same sentiment.

The House Judiciary Committee is considering two bills concerning merit selection; HB 1815 and HB 1816. HB 1815 would amend the PA Constitution, allowing the governor to appoint appellate judges.

HB 1816 would create an Appellate Court Nominating Commission, which would be in charge of reviewing candidates for appellate court vacancies. The candidates that held the most qualifications would be put on a list which would be presented to the governor for the final selection process.

The eventual nominee would have to go to a Senate confirmation hearing and as judge, would then serve a term of four years, before a retention election.

The Daily News reports that commission members would be appointed by the governor, legislative leaders, as well as civic and other groups. These members must possess diversity among political, geographic, gender, and ethnic backgrounds. One member of the commission is required to be a law-school dean.

Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, is known as the “prime sponsor” of merit selection, according to PMC.

“I believe that by changing the selection process we will ensure that judges are selected on their qualifications and not other unrelated factors,” Cutler said.

Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery, questions supporters of the bill. The Daily News quoted his confusion on which system was better.

“This bill takes the public out of the selection process and puts in its place special-interest groups who would pick the people on the nominating commission,” Stephens said.
One of Stephens’ main concerns would be the commission having PACs. Heim finds this conception ridiculous. Stephens hasn’t stated his formal opinion on the issue yet.

Will Pennsylvania be able to maintain partisan election of appellate judges or will merit selection swiftly take its place; therefore eliminating the electorate from the election process?

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