'Merit selection' proposal tabled yet again by state House Judiciary Committee

By Jon Campisi | Jun 8, 2012

For the second time in two months, a legislative panel in Harrisburg postponed a

preliminary vote on a bill that would pave the way toward changing how appellate judges are selected in the commonwealth.

Pennsylvania’s House Judiciary Committee on June 5 tabled a “merit selection” bill in a 13-12 vote, according to the group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.

The measure, H.B. 1815, is designed to change the state constitution to allow for the so-called merit selection of judges.

Pennsylvania is currently one of only a handful of states nationwide whose residents choose judges of all levels through partisan elections.

The merit selection bill would only change the way appeals court judges would be chosen. Judges in minor judiciaries, as well as trial court judges, would still be elected at the polls.

Under the merit selection proposal, jurists sitting on Commonwealth Court, Superior Court and the Supreme Court, the three appellate benches, would be nominated by a panel of attorneys and non-lawyers.

The nominations would then go to the governor, whose suggestions would be subject of legislative approval.

Many states in the country choose their judges using merit selection.

The merit selection bill was supposed to come up for a committee vote late last month but was postponed.

Tuesday’s vote to again push back the vote irked those such as Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts who would like to see the proposal move forward.

“Instead of moving forward a bill that would give Pennsylvanians the opportunity to decide for themselves whether there is a better way to choose appellate judges, the Committee responded to pressure by special interest groups that would prefer not to let the people decide this issue,” PMC said on its website. “Such groups clearly believe their best prospects lie in electing judges that agree with them and fear the results of a system that takes judges out of the campaign and fundraising businesses.”

According to PMC, an overwhelming majority of Pennsylvanians polled in 2010 stated they would like to have the opportunity to vote on whether to adopt merit selection as the law of the land.

Much has changed in the 40-plus years since the public last voted on this issue, PMC stated, that makes merit selection more appealing than ever.

This includes the fact that elections have become more expensive, special interests are funding judicial campaigns, and a sitting state Supreme Court justice has been indicted for alleged improper campaign activity.

“It is past time for the people to be heard,” PMC said in its statement. “We will continue to work to bring this issue to the people so they can decide whether there is a better way. We trust the voters to make this decision; it is unfortunate that others do not.”

The merit selection bill was sponsored in March by Lancaster County Republican state Rep. Bryan Cutler, who said he unveiled the proposal to fix what he sees as a poisoned judicial selection system tainted by campaign dollars and special interests.

There was no word on when the merit selection issue would again come up for a legislative committee vote.

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