For a better Pennsylvania: Part 3 - judicial elections

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Picking Pennsylvania’s judiciary is a process in need of reform.

(This is the third in a series of five weekly columns, each focused on one area that, if reformed, would make state politics and government better.)

I’ve written about this before. I’ve done so for years. I’m doing so again. And I’ll tell you why.

When it comes to judicial elections, especially for state courts, our current system creates an impression that justice is for sale.

And even if it’s not? Even if it’s only for rent? There are sound reasons to reform the system to raise the level of public trust in our politics and courts.

No one thing can make our government better. But a collection, including campaign-finance reform and reduced incumbency protections (as I wrote in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series), when taken together, can change Pennsylvania.

They can improve elections, expand civic participation, make lawmakers more accountable and, most importantly, begin to restore citizen confidence across the branches of government.

Changing how we select state judges can help with that restoration.

We’re one of just seven states (the only Northeast one) with partisan elections at all judicial levels.

Are 43 states and the federal government wrong on this? I don’t think so.

Even our candidates, winners and losers, don’t think so.

Ten-year Philly Common Pleas Judge Ellen Ceisler, a Democrat, on Nov. 7 narrowly won a seat on state Commonwealth Court. Her view of statewide judicial elections? “A ridiculous proposition” is what she called them at a candidate forum at Widener Law School outside Harrisburg on Oct. 18.

She’s right.

Lancaster County D.A. Craig Stedman, 10 years in office, a veteran, a Republican, “highly recommended” by the state bar, ran for a seat on Superior Court. He lost by less than half a percent.

He says, “It’s very difficult in a state this big to get your qualifications out there.”

Especially in a year like this when 15 candidates, all largely unknown to voters, vied for seats on three different state courts.

Especially when women here and elsewhere did better than men (pick your reason). Women won all seven Pennsylvania judgeships on the ballot; seven men lost.

Nothing wrong with women judges. Plenty wrong with our current system.

Electing statewide forces candidates, many already sitting judges, to plead for money and be labeled by party, leaving an impression their future rulings can be influenced by either or both.

The trial bar, trade unions, and other special interests are the big donors in judicial campaigns, creating a potential for conflicts of interest — far from encouraging public trust.

“Judges are supposed to be nonideological, nonpartisan and impartial,” says Maida Milone, president of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a group working for judicial merit selection, “They shouldn’t have D’s and R’s after their names. They shouldn’t take money from people and groups who might end up in their courtrooms.”

Yet they do.

In fact, Pennsylvania’s 2015 judicial elections set a national record: $16.5 million spent on races resulting in three Democrats winning state Supreme Court seats, shifting the political balance from R to D.

It’s too much money, too much politics for jobs too important to the notion of equal justice for all.

Legislation replacing judicial elections with a merit-selection system is pending in Harrisburg. It always is. Because Harrisburg, in so many ways for so many reasons, is antithetical to reform.

Contact lawmakers (find them here: legis.state.pa.us), press for judicial reforms.

Don’t like merit selection? There are other ways to improve the system.

Chris Bonneau is a University of Pittsburgh assistant political science professor, a specialist in judicial elections. He says large states can benefit from creating several judicial districts to elect judges from all regions. Gives candidates a better chance to be known. Gives courts more cultural/geographic diversity.

Right now, of our seven state Supreme Court justices, five are from either Pittsburgh or Philly. There’s more to Pennsylvania than urban areas.

No system is perfect. But a system of selecting judges that’s fueled by money and politics, and reliant on basically blindfolded voting? Just plain bad.