After record-high spending in November’s statewide judicial elections, the push for merit selection of appellate court judges received a boost this week from the current and former governors.
All six living governors – Dick Thornburgh, Tom Ridge, Mark Schweiker, Ed Rendell, Tom Corbett and Tom Wolf – have sent a letter to the state House of Representatives asking the chamber to vote on a bipartisan constitutional amendment to implement merit selection of judges to the Commonwealth, Superior and Supreme court benches.
Rendell, Schweiker and Ridge said while merit selection – including its latest iteration – won’t remove politics from the process completely, it would be a more palatable option given the “broken system” of electing judges.
Rendell said given the record campaign spending last November, low voter turnout and ongoing scandals in the justice system, the time is now to move forward with starting the change to the state constitution. Schweiker added that the record spending and continual low turnout in statewide judicial races is “a recipe for deep distrust in the government and especially the judiciary.”
Ridge believed the constitutional framers wanted to have two branches of government, the executive and the legislative, which could change with the will of the people, but created the judicial branch to arbitrate based on the constitution.
“Popular will,” Ridge said, “is not to be reflected in the appellate courts of Pennsylvania.”
The House Judiciary Committee in October approved a “hybrid” merit selection model, House Bill 1336. Under that version, those seeking an appellate judicial post would have to apply to a bipartisan Appellate Court Nominating Commission made up of lawyers and non-lawyers who are appointed by the governor, House and Senate leadership.
The commission would interview the judicial applicants and develop a short list from which the governor would choose the nominee to place before the Senate for confirmation. After a four-year term, the judge would stand for retention.
The bill is a constitutional amendment so it would need to pass the Legislature in two consecutive sessions then be placed on the ballot for voters to decide.
Not everyone is supportive of the legislation. Supreme Court Justice Debra Todd stated her preference for the election of judges when asked about merit selection during a budget hearing this past week.
“You run, it’s inherently political, and you are appointed, it’s inherently political,” she said. “It’s just at a higher level, by people in political power making the decisions rather than the electorate.”
“If it’s going to be political either way, my preference is that the electorate make the decision. Sunshine is the best disinfectant,” she continued. “I like seeing the judges out there, I like seeing the campaigns going county to county. I think I personally benefited from visiting all 67 counties, meeting people, learning from them and them learning more about me. Could our electorate be more educated about the candidate? Yes, I’d like to see us move more towards that. But I do favor an elective process.”
When asked about her comments, Ridge disagreed, saying the undisclosed campaign spending in judicial campaigns is far less transparent than the hybrid merit system, which would filter applicants through the commission process.
And while no system can remove politics, Schweiker said the hybrid model at least puts more emphasis on qualifications rather than ballot position.
Noting low turnout in statewide judicial races, Schweiker said: “The average Pennsylvanian has given up on this.”