Politically Uncorrected: Pennsylvania’s Great Game of Judicial Roulette

Are you good with names? Try these.

Carolyn Nichols, Maria McLaughlin, Deborah Anne Kunselman, and Geoff Moulton!  If you don’t recognize these try another group: Wade Kagarise, Craig Stedman, Emil Giordano, and Mary Murray.

Still a little fuzzy about whom they are? You are not alone.
Probably 95 percent of the voters that head to the voting booths on Nov 7 won’t recognize them either.  The first four names are the Democratic candidates for the state Superior Court. The latter four names are the Republican candidates for the same court.

Adding the names of candidates for other appeals courts would yield the same puzzlement. Altogether there are seven vacancies on Pennsylvania’s three appeals courts. In addition, three judges will stand for retention, allowing voters to decide vote “yes” or “no” whether they will get another ten years to serve.

It’s hard to exaggerate the significance of these courts, handling appeals on a wide variety of civil and criminal matters. Wouldn’t it be nice if we knew enough about these candidates to make a rational choice? Wouldn’t it be nice if we just recognized their names?

We don’t – and that’s a big problem.

It is because democracy functions on the basis of an informed electorate electing its leaders. Pennsylvania voters are anything but well informed when choosing appellate level judges on statewide ballots.

In fact, the federal level eschews any judicial elections. Judges are all appointed, from district court judges to the Supreme Court.

The state picture, however, is different.  While more than 30 states elect at least some of their judges, only six states, including Pennsylvania, elect all of its judges in partisan elections.

Electing judges at any level is rarely a good idea. The normative notion that judges will act in a nonpartisan manner has not been a good fit with the reality of partisan elections.
But in Pennsylvania, the greatest dilemma exists in elections to the three statewide appeals courts: the Commonwealth, Superior, and Supreme Courts.

One problem is that the average Pennsylvania voter on election day will know almost nothing about the backgrounds and qualifications of these statewide judicial candidates. Whoever is elected in November – the informed electorate of democratic theory will not have had much to do with it.

Nor is low information about judicial candidates the only problem with electing judges. Another is the low turnout typical in off-year elections. The majority of voters don’t participate in these elections.

Consequently, issues that should have little or no relevance, such as ballot position, party endorsements, regional support or fundraising advantage typically determine who wins.

Low information and low turnout are only exacerbated by the ominous growth of spending in these races.  Cycle after cycle the money spent grows dramatically.  This explosion of money is undercutting public trust in judicial integrity as more and more of it comes from law firms and other special interests that often have clients with cases in front of these very appeals courts.

Many believe the solution to this electoral anarchy is an appointive merit system. Such a system might have a diverse nominating commission of citizens, former judges, and gubernatorial and legislative appointees. The commission would evaluate the credentials, perform interviews, check backgrounds, and recommend to the governor the names of qualified potential court nominees. Gubernatorial appointees would then need confirmation by a majority of the state Senate.

But even merit systems are not perfect. Indeed, no system for selecting judges in a democracy is perfect. Where merit systems have been adopted they have not been a panacea. Sometimes they have proved elitist while other studies have questioned whether they produce better judges.

In fact, far from perfect, merit systems are simply the better of two imperfect choices we have for choosing judges. They provide a solid alternative to the electoral roulette we now use to select appellate judges.

For too long Pennsylvania’s judicial selection process has allowed the search for the perfect to be the enemy of the good. The system we have now is neither perfect nor even “good enough.” It’s just plain bad.

14 Responses

  1. Light turnout in east plus heavy turnout in west equals the Zap-Allah crime family takes over the supreme court and STILL controls through all of the judicial boards appointed by the godfather before retirement. Want reform? Get the legislature to pass a judicial review law independent of the courts that insures there will be no more whitewash committees like the cash for kids skit that Passed on felonies by the principal players…or, keep thinking this is a real democracy when it’s really just all about money.

  2. Picking by ignorant voters in an election or back room deals by pols to appoint unqualified and biased friends does not make much difference. If you have honest selection and qualified appointments, that is the best. But first you need to elect honest and intelligent legislature to set up such a system and then honest people to staff it. Not likely in PA govt.

  3. All one has to do is study Pennsylvania history BEFORE the direct election of judges to see why our imperfect, yet democratic system is better than insiders choosing judges. Because unless we are having an objective aptitude test and selecting the highest scorers as our judges, every process is subjective.

    1. Agreed, there was merit selection at one time and it was discarded. Look at the games the Feds play with nominations and we have seen where a Supreme Court nomination went unfilled for political reasons. The info is out there. The electorate has to do a little homework and then show up on election day and VOTE.

  4. Madonna is based at a left-wing college
    Franklin &marshall….no objectivity
    Poor record-Hillary in a landslide??

  5. And even those endorsing seem as confused as the rest of us.

    There are only four seats open for PA Superior Court judge. PSEA has endorsed seven candidates, which is more than available slots. What does PSEA recommend voters do?

    One of the most impartial sources of candidate info is the League of Women Voters.

    I’ll provide links below, if they get through the screening.

  6. No group of judges receives more investigation and examination than the members of the federal judiciary. While some are very well-qualified, some are poorly qualified and many are ill-suited for a lifetime job to interpret the law and make judgments to determine the rights and duties of others. On balance, politically-appointed judges are no better than elected judges. And when one considers that historically many federally-appointed judges come from the ranks of the elected state judiciary, it looks like the voters aren’t doing any worse than presidents and senators and one could argue that the voters are doing a better job.

  7. Even you are not being complete in your reporting and that shows one of the weaknesses of “merit” selection. You mention the Democrats and Republicans. I am also a candidate for the PA Superior Court, the only candidate neither a Democrat nor a Republican. I will be on the ballot in all 67 counties and yet you even fail to mention me. I am not sure how putting our judicial appointments into the hands of special interests, like the Democrats, the Republicans, and the PA Bar Association (a trade association for attorneys) is better than letting the voters pick.

  8. Yes, Terry, we need secret backroom deals to pick judges. Ballot position argument no good anymore, doesnt matter with computer voting machines.
    Just like the refusal to let the public know who picked the multi million dollar marijuana contracts, the selection of judges will be by powerful people behind closed doors.
    You have the same arrogance like the Founding Fathers, most of whom were slave owners who only let white property owning men vote, and don’t trust the people.
    Look how that worked out with the 9th circuit that rubber stamps every liberal decision.
    No system is perfect but giving the voters the final say sure beats backdoor judge trading, a supposedly non political selection committee picked by….politicians.
    Why do professors be so naive about real politics? No experience ever running for office?

    1. Typical commie response, if you don’t like something blame it on old white slave owners. Go back to George Soros and tell him we are not buying. While there tell him we in NW PA are not buying the PAGOP’s bull crap either

      If it ain’t written it ain’t law

  9. The PA Bar Ratings are not reliable either. That system is just as political. But it would be good if media covered these elections and you knew who the candidates were. Merit selection is not perfect, but for the statewide judges, it is the only way.

  10. If Madonna wanted to do something constructive, he would have given info on these candidates or pointed out where it could be found–for instance, the PA Bar Association rankings. He could have encouraged the media to cover these elections.
    Who actually believes the PA Senate could run a merit selection system, given that they can’t even pass a budget?

    1. He just sits in a comfortable college office with no clue as to what is happening around him in the community. Only socializes with likeminded people, his polls speak for themselves. (Hilary in a big win lol )

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