Officials hold 3d hearing on revamping Pa. government

Two state senators listened to expert witnesses discussing the need for a constitutional convention.

At the University of Pennsylvania Law School, two state senators heard testimony yesterday on the convening of a constitutional convention for the reform of state government.

State Sens. Jeffrey E. Piccola (R., Dauphin) and Michael Folmer (R., Lebanon) held the third hearing on the topic, listening to the views of three speakers: an area lawyer and author, a Rutgers University law school professor, and the president of the local League of Women Voters. Previous hearings were held in Harrisburg and Pittsburgh.

The constitutional convention is being considered in light of recent problems in state government, including the legislative pay-raise scandal. No firm time frame has been set for a convention - which could take up a potpourri of political issues - but the concept continues to be studied by the state Senate Government Committee.

In an ornate lecture hall, Robert B. Surrick, a lawyer who wrote the book Lawyers, Judges and Journalists: The Corrupt and the Corruptors, told the senators and about 15 spectators that voters are clueless with regard to the election of judges.

"Voters will vote for a candidate if the candidate is from a county near where they live," Surrick said. "They will vote on name recognition regardless of how the name is known, good or bad."

He added that race plays a large part, saying a "law-and-order" candidate blatantly "appeals to those who believe all blacks belong in jail."

Surrick suggested using a "reform plane" in which the state would be divided into seven judicial districts, and judicial candidates would have to present themselves to "the local newspapers, bar associations, service clubs, etc."

This would allow voters to gain a better understanding of candidates' qualifications, he said.

Kay McKenna, president of the League of Women Voters of Southeastern Pennsylvania, said that while her organization does not have a position on proposals to hold a constitutional convention, her group was "concerned about what steps are necessary to produce a convention that will have constructive and credible outcomes for government reform."

McKenna said one area of concern was redistricting. "If reduction in the size of the legislature, which the League supports, is a subject that comes before a constitutional convention, it should be preceded by reform in the way legislative districts are drawn."

Robert F. Williams, a professor at Rutgers University School of Law, told the senators that holding a constitutional convention is "a lengthy and expensive process."

"Be careful of what you wish for," Williams told the senators.

Williams also noted that most people who serve in a constitutional convention say it is the most important thing they have done in their career.

 


Contact staff writer Vernon Clark

at 215-854-5717 or vclark@phillynews.com.