Rendell pushes for merit selection of judges

Yesterday, the State House held hearings on an old idea: ending the practice of electing judges in Pennsylvania. The bill, which is sponsored by State Rep. Matthew Smith, has gained new support in recent months thanks an expensive election to fill a Supreme Court vacancy and the “cash for kids” scandal in Luzerne County.

The bill has a strong supporter in Gov. Ed Rendell. He sent a letter yesterday expressing his support and calling on the General Assembly to take action.

I have said on many occasions that our system of electing appellate judges makes no sense. It is no secret that there is great concern in Pennsylvania about the role of money in judicial elections. Current law could allow judicial candidates to accept indirect contributions from lawyers and special interest groups that may eventually have to argue a case before that judicial candidate. It is no wonder that Pennsylvanians have been losing faith in our courts and our judges.

Establishing a merit selection system would squarely remove the influence of money in our judicial elections and ensure fairness in the judicial system. That is because merit selection will help ensure the most qualified individuals of all backgrounds from all parts of Pennsylvania -- even those without political connections -- get appointed to our appellate courts.

Strong words -- but from a lame duck governor. Here are the details of the bill, from a story in today's Philadelphia Inquirer.

The merit-selection proposal would apply to Commonwealth and Superior Courts, the intermediate appellate courts, and to the Supreme Court. Common Pleas Court judges, elected on a county level, are not included in the legislation.

Under the legislation, the governor would select an individual recommended by a 14-member commission: four gubernatorial appointees, four General Assembly appointees, and six public representatives from business, unions, civic groups and law schools. The nominee would face Senate confirmation.

Does this proposal go far enough to remove the taint of money from the judicial process? Or does it make sense for judges to have to face the voters?

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