Sunday, April 20, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Pa. lawmakers to propose taking first-time judges off ballots

Pennsylvania voters last week chose one judge to fill a state Superior Court vacancy and retained two judges each from the state Supreme and Superior courts.

Despite the fact those posts often furnish those who fill them with a fair amount of power — not to mention a high salary — public information about the candidates was scarce, and many left the polling places unsure of exactly for who they'd cast a ballot.

With that in mind, state Reps. Brian Sims, D-Phila, Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, and Pamela DiLissio, D-Montgomery, will announce legislation Tuesday instituting merit selection for judges named to the three statewide appellate courts.

"Judges could no longer be chosen according to their ballot position, campaign fundraising abilities or other irrelevant factors," Sims and Cutler wrote two months ago in a state House memorandum about the proposal. "Removing partisan politics and money from our courtrooms helps to increase public confidence in the courts."

Under the hybrid elective-appointive system, elected officials would select a 15-member bipartisan citizens' nominating commission. The commission would then review potential judges' qualifications, including their legal experience, reputation for ethical behavior and fairness. The governor would nominate judicial candidates from a "short list" prepared by the commission. Pending confirmation by the state Senate, the judges would be posted. They would face a retention election after four years, followed by a retention election every 10 years after that.

"This legislation is important to ensure a fair, impartial and qualified judiciary," Sims and Cutler wrote. "Under the current election system, judicial candidates must engage in a political process that leaves them seemingly beholden to wealthy lawyers and special interest groups, injecting partisan politics and large sums of money into an arena where such practices have no place — our justice system."

The legislators will be joined by supporters Lynn Marks of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts and Susan Carty of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania for an 11 a.m. press conference in Harrisburg's Capitol Media Center to provide more details about the bill.

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