Judicial reform advocates in Pennsylvania rallying behind a potential change in the state constitution that would alter the way judges are selected will have to wait a little while longer for action after a state House committee recently postponed a vote on a merit selection bill.
The House Judiciary Committee was set to vote on H.B. 1815 and its accompanying bill, H.B. 1816, on May 22, but committee leaders instead opted to postpone the issue.
The bills would change the way appellate judges are chosen in the commonwealth. Pennsylvania is currently only one of a handful of states across the nation that chooses all of its judges in strictly partisan elections.
Judges of all courts, from minor judiciaries to the state appellate courts all the way up to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, are chosen by voters at the election booth.
So-called “merit selection” is a process by which a panel of lawyers and non-lawyers recruit, investigate and evaluate applicants for judgeships, and then submit the names of the most highly qualified candidates to the appointing authority, who is usually the governor, according to the American Judicature Society.
Currently, two thirds of the states and the District of Columbia select some or all of their judges under the merit selection system, the Society stated.
The merit selection issue is particularly timely given the recent indictment of a sitting member of Pennsylvania’s high court.
Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin was charged in May with illegally using her taxpayer-funded staff to work on her campaign for a seat on the high court.
The scandal is viewed by court reform advocates as a shining example of the dangers in mixing politics, campaign dollars and the judiciary.
“In the wake of the indictment of a sitting Supreme Court justice for alleged illegal political and campaign activities, isn’t it time to give the people of Pennsylvania the opportunity to decide whether there is a better way to select our appellate court judges,” the advocacy group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts said in a recent statement.
The Philadelphia Bar Association has also joined the chorus calling for change in the wake of the judicial scandal.
Following Orie Melvin’s indictment, Bar Association Chancellor John E. Savoth called for the justice’s resignation.
“This is a sad day for the justice system in Pennsylvania,” Savoth said in a statement released after the indictment was announced. “A justice of the highest tribunal in the state has been charged with violating state law. It is imperative that Justice Joan Orie Melvin resign from the state Supreme Court immediately to maintain the integrity of our justice system.
“The charges against Justice Orie Melvin cast a shadow on the court that compromises the ability for justice to be dispensed fairly,” Savoth’s statement continues. “We cannot have a sitting justice who has been indicted.”
Orie Melvin was suspended by her fellow Supreme Court justices following her indictment, and while she has voluntarily recused herself from her duties, she has rebuffed calls to resign, according to local news reports.
Orie Melvin’s temporary departure leaves six justices sitting on the high court, which could prove problematic in the event of a potential tie during court decisions.
In March, state Rep. Bryan Cutler unveiled H.B. 1815, a bill that would amend the state constitution to allow the governor to appoint judges to the three appellate courts: Commonwealth Court, Superior Court and the Supreme Court.
Under the bill, the governor’s actions would be subject to the approval of the state Senate.
An accompanying bill, H.B. 1816, would create an Appellate Court Nominating Commission, which would be charged with reviewing the appellate court candidates and presenting their recommendations to the governor for final selection.
Cutler came to Philadelphia this past spring to participate in a hearing by the state House Judiciary Committee.
At the time, the legislator from Lancaster County touted his merit selection bills as a way to reignite faith in the judicial branch of government.
“I believe the faith of our citizens in the judicial system is vital,” he said in prepared remarks at the time. “We must have judges who are qualified, competent and scrupulous. The electoral system comes down to who can raise the most money, produce the best ads and campaign the hardest. None of these qualities are relevant to the judicial system. I believe merit selection could help to restore the faith of the people in this important branch of state government.”
There was no word on when the House Judiciary Committee would next take up the merit selection issue.