Justice for sale?

When Pennsylvania’s top judges rule on a case, their decision shouldn’t be second-guessed just because the lawyers or litigants who appear before them have donated to their political campaigns.

But that cloud is going to hang over almost every state Supreme Court justice — and many lower court judges — until the state scraps partisan judicial elections.

A new study reveals that campaign contributors appear regularly before the high-court justices.

The nonpartisan American Judicature Society (AJS) reports that nearly two out of three civil cases decided by the Supreme Court in the last two years involved a litigant, lawyer, or law firm who had given money to one or more of the justices’ campaigns. That doesn’t even count giving by business, labor and political groups.

Long before this study, most Pennsylvanians told pollsters that partisan judicial elections — awash in unrestricted campaign donations — risked creating the impression that justice is for sale. Last year, a two-way race for a seat on the court generated $4.7 million in political donations.

The study by the AJS “confirms Pennsylvanians’ concerns about the problematic role of money in judicial elections,” according to the statewide reform group, Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.

Indeed, many judicial hopefuls themselves say they are troubled by the fact that they have to turn to the legal community and other special interests to fund their campaigns. For the winners, campaign fund-raising puts them in a potential conflict of interest whenever these donors show up in court.

That’s why most states have taken judges out of the political arena. Many opt for the merit-based appointment of judges who then go before the voters in nonpartisan retention elections.

Despite judicial scandals and citizens’ distaste for politics in the courts, Pennsylvania has rejected calls for merit selection. But Gov. Rendell has made it a top priority to push a pending measure that would seek voter approval to implement an appointed appellate bench, including the Supreme Court.

It should be approved.

As judicial campaigns become more expensive, judges will face more deep-pocketed donors in court. That will further fuel public cynicism regarding the interplay of politics and justice.

An appointed judiciary will largely get judges out of the fund-raising game. That should bolster public confidence in the courts’ evenhanded dispensing of justice.

Nothing less than citizens’ trust in the fairness of the state’s judicial system is at stake.