Proposal to alter selection for judges
A 14-member nominating commission would be part of the process.
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) -- The 1968 constitutional convention that created the current structure of Pennsylvania's court system found itself deadlocked over whether appellate judges should be elected.
That debate was reignited last week when Gov. Ed Rendell proposed having an "independent expert panel" help select "only the most qualified jurists" for the Supreme, Superior and Commonwealth courts.
The question of how to fill the appeals court benches has surfaced repeatedly throughout Pennsylvania history. The judges were appointed until 1850, and since then the state has employed both nonpartisan elections (in which political affiliation is not listed on the ballot) and partisan elections -- the current system.
Across the country, the percentage of state judges who face some sort of election has remained essentially flat over the past century -- nearly 90 percent -- according to the National Center for State Courts. Pennsylvania is currently one of just six states that elects judges at all levels in partisan elections.
Back in 1968, the constitutional convention handed the decision to voters, who opted the following spring for direct elections by a margin of just 19,000 out of nearly 1.3 million votes cast.
Here's the problem
The current method, in which the judges run in partisan elections, then periodically face voters in unopposed "retention" elections, is biased against well-qualified lawyers who may lack political connections, said John Estey, the Democratic governor's chief of staff.
"Those people really -- unless they have some political aspirations, or they want to learn about it -- have no way of putting their names into the mix," Estey said.
Changing the system would involve amending the Pennsylvania Constitution, a process that requires approval by the Legislature in two successive sessions and then by voters.
Rendell is proposing a 14-member nominating commission that would give the governor a list of five names for each vacancy. The governor would send his choice from that list to the Senate for simple-majority confirmation.
The commission would consist of four gubernatorial appointees (no more than two lawyers, no more than two from a single political party, and all from different counties); one chosen by each of the General Assembly's four caucuses; and six "public" members selected from civic groups, unions, business organizations, lawyers' groups, non-lawyer professional groups and law-enforcement associations.
They include staggered commission terms, public disclosure of the names sent to the governor, and having the commission pick the judge or justice whenever the governor and Senate reach an impasse. Four years after a jurist is selected, he or she would face a 10-year retention election. It would only apply to future vacancies, and take effect after Rendell leaves office.
Critics of the partisan-election method argue that many voters know little or nothing about the candidates except what they see on the ballot -- name, party affiliation and county of residence. Qualifications become a minor factor and campaigning, they say, is harmful to the judges' public image.
"It's a crap shoot," said Lynn V. Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a nonpartisan court-reform group. "So much of it depends on their ballot position, how much money they might raise from lawyers."
The Pennsylvania Bar Association, which has supported a form of appellate-court merit selection since 1947, believes it could eventually lead to a similar system for county judges.
"It's critical for us to get the appellate judges selected by merit," said bar association president Ken Horoho. "I think once that happens and people see that that is the best process by which to get good, qualified judges elected and retained, then I think we can re-evaluate whether or not we'll recommend it to the county bars."
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