Here's help voting in Pa.'s hapless judicial elections

Pennsylvania judicial elections aren’t perfect, but they’re all we’ve got right now.

On Tuesday, Pennsylvanians will elect seven new statewide judges and retain (or not; though don’t count on not) three incumbent statewide judges.

Voters about to select or retain mostly have no idea whom they’re voting for; likely, they’ll decide based on party, geography, gender, or ballot position.

Not good.

So, I’m here to help. At least a little.

First, though, we shouldn’t be doing this, OK?

We shouldn’t be voting for statewide judges in a state as big, as diverse, as Pennsylvania, one of only seven states with partisan elections at all judicial levels – and the only Northeastern state.

(It was six, but North Carolina this year joined the ranks of the misdirected, which makes sense, since North Carolina also is among the three worst-gerrymandered states, along with Wisconsin and, of course, Pennsylvania.)

Judges are supposed to be above politics, no? Then why, even if you think electing them is a good idea, have them run under a party label?

Yet we do.

Parties have political agendas. Judges should not. Labeling judicial candidates encourages voting for party rather than person. And increased straight-party voting can mean a further trump of qualifications.

Also, judicial campaigns are fueled by law firms, lawyers, and special interests who then appear before those they helped put in robes, which clouds the notion of equal justice.

And, in a largely rural state, racial and regional diversity becomes problematic. Candidates from urban areas have an edge. In fund-raising, that’s where the money is. To the extent any candidate is known, it helps to be known in populous places.

Five of the seven current state Supreme Court justices, for example, are from Pittsburgh or Philly.

There is legislation (there always is) to scrap judicial elections in favor of a merit selection process. It requires amending the constitution. There hasn’t been a floor vote on the issue in 20 years.

So, for now, all we have is voting blind for the people who have final say on just about anything of import or controversy in the state.

What can you do?

Be a responsible voter. Seriously. Find out something, anything, about court candidates and make, at minimum, a semi-informed decision.

There’s a digital tool, BallotReady, on the website of the watchdog group Committee of Seventy. Type in your address to see candidates and your voting place.

The site (www.seventy.org) also has lots of info on all candidates for state courts, broken down by court, including candidate websites and recommendations from the Pennsylvania Bar Association.

And, yeah, some view the bar process as political, maybe a tad slanted. But it’s something. And it’s described by Seventy boss David Thornburgh as “a serious effort to which they [the bar’s evaluation commission members] devote a lot of time.”

So, look at Seventy’s site and the state bar stuff by court, found on the site’s “November 2017 Election Guide.”

There are two candidates for one spot on the Supreme Court, and two justices facing yes/no retention elections.

There are nine candidates for four slots on Superior Court, and one judge facing retention. Two candidates — Republican Mary Murray of Allegheny County and Green Party candidate Jules Mermelstein of Montgomery County — are “not recommended” by the state bar, for failure to take part in the evaluation process.

In Mermelstein’s case, he decided to run for the court after the bar evaluations were finished and thus had no opportunity to participate.

There are four candidates for two seats on Commonwealth Court. One, Democrat Irene Clark of Allegheny County, is “not recommended” by the state bar for what it calls her “minimal experience.”

I know this is labor-intensive. So is striving for the best possible judicial system. The prime sponsor of pending legislation for merit selection, Rep. Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster), says there’s greater interest in the issue now than in the past. I hope he’s right.

Meanwhile, vote for state judges only after learning something about them. To not vote or to vote blind is throwing away your voice in the only process currently in place.

 

*Clarification: Superior Court Green Party candidate Jules Mermelstein, of Montgomery County, did not decide to run for the court until after the Bar Association’s evaluation process was completed. He had no opportunity to be evaluated.

 

 

 

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