Just over one year ago, we came together as former governors from across the political spectrum to call for the adoption of merit selection of statewide judges and justices to the appellate courts of Pennsylvania: Supreme, Superior, and Commonwealth courts.
A recent report on the judicial scandals that have plagued our Supreme Court, coupled with runaway spending in some recent judicial races, compel us to renew that call today.
Spending in the 2015 judicial elections topped $16 million. Spending to date in the most recent primary elections alone has hit more than $4.75 million. We can only imagine what will be spent on general election campaigning in the months leading up to November.
The report, authored by Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, while not focused specifically on the merit selection of judges, provides a compelling context for supporting it through a detailed timeline of recent scandals that shook our elected judicial system to its core.
This context is nearly unique to Pennsylvania, in that we are among only a handful of states that still elects all of our judges and justices in partisan elections, rather than selecting them through a merit-based system.
Merit selection is not a panacea. We are hardly naïve about today’s political realities. Nonetheless, having in place a system by which any qualified candidate can apply for an open seat on the appellate bench and be considered by a bipartisan, diverse group of citizens from across the commonwealth — a group tasked with evaluating the strength of that candidate’s professional and personal qualifications to serve — is a far better system than one in which random ballot position, fund-raising, and campaigning are determining factors.
And yes, there are those who say that substituting merit selection of these judges and justices for elections is denying voters’ right to elect all of the judiciary. To them we say, Pennsylvania voters will still get three bites at the electoral apple. First, they would continue to elect their local magisterial district judges and judges on the courts of common pleas. These candidates are generally better known to the voters than candidates for statewide judicial positions.
Second, Pennsylvanians would decide for themselves whether they prefer elections or merit selection. The adoption of merit selection for statewide positions would require amending the state constitution, beginning with passage of a bill in two consecutive sessions of the Legislature — itself no small feat — and then go to the voters for final approval.
Finally, judges and justices who are nominated and approved for the appellate courts would have to face the voters in nonpartisan, retention elections after serving on the bench for four years. At that time, voters would have a body of information about how these individuals perform on the bench to use when deciding whether or not to retain them.
House Bill 111, recently passed by the House Judiciary Committee with strong, bipartisan support, is now headed for a full vote on the House floor. This is an important first step toward strengthening the independence and quality of Pennsylvania’s judiciary.
As former governors, we strongly urge lawmakers to support this effort. As fellow citizens, we urge constituents to join them.
Dick Thornburgh, Tom Ridge, Mark Schweiker, Ed Rendell, and Tom Corbett are all former governors of Pennsylvania. To read “Report and Recommendations for Improving Pennsylvania’s Judicial Discipline System,” visit www.pmconline.org.