A state lawmaker from Philadelphia unveiled a judicial merit selection bill Jan. 23 that
would replace the system of electing appellate judges in Pennsylvania.
State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, the Senate’s Democratic Whip, introduced his bill on the same day that jury selection got under way in western Pennsylvania in the corruption trial of state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, who is accused of using state resources for political purposes.
Williams’ bill would change the way judges on the three appellate courts – Commonwealth Court, Superior Court and the Supreme Court – are chosen.
Lower court judges, from magisterial district judges to Common Pleas Court judges, would continue to be elected by voters under the proposal, as they are now.
Under the proposal, appellate court judges would be appointed by the governor, who would select the jurists from a defined list of candidates generated by an independent, bipartisan commission.
The proposed 15-member Appellate Court Nominating Commission would consist of seven members of the public and eight members appointed by elected officials; four chosen by the governor and the other four picked by the General Assembly.
All who serve on the commission would have to be at least 18 years of age and hail from a minimum of four different counties and be a resident of the state for at least one year prior to service, which would be a four-year term.
The nominating commission would consist of both attorneys and non-attorneys, and the members would have to represent the state’s “diverse geographic and political makeup,” Williams’s office stated in a news release announcing the bill.
“As citizens, we have to have utmost confidence in our judiciary, and right now, that’s simply not the case,” Williams said in a statement. “I’ve filed a merit selection bill under a Democratic governor and I’m filing this one under a Republican one. This isn’t a matter of partisanship. It’s about ensuring the integrity of the bench.”
On the same day as Williams’ announcement, suspended Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin was in court in Allegheny County for the start of her public corruption trial.
She stands accused of using her then-Superior Court staff to work on her campaign for the high court, to which she was eventually elected.
Williams’ co-sponsor on the merit selection bill is Republican state Sen. Richard Alloway, who represents portions of Adams, Franklin and York counties in south-central Pennsylvania.
The legislation seeks to amend the commonwealth’s constitution to allow for merit selection, a lengthy process that requires passage in both chambers of the General Assembly not once, but twice, and must be voted on by the general public in a referendum prior to adoption.
Williams has introduced some form of merit selection legislation since 2006, his office’s news release states, although the latest scandal at the state Supreme Court really pushed him to press forward this year.
“Most judges strive to be upright, and we know those who err are fewer in number,” Williams said in his statement. “But their impact can be immense, for all of us. As we face a number of critical issues, we cannot afford for our high courts, our final arbiters of law, to succumb to forces of corruption.”
Williams also singled out the Luzerne County “Kids for Cash” judicial scandal, perhaps the biggest judicial scandal in state history, as another example of why change is warranted.
That case involved Common Pleas Court judges who sent children to privately run detention facilities for kickbacks.
Williams said in his statement that reasonable perception of corruption can be just as damaging as actual corruption, given that less information circulates about judicial candidates and their credentials.
Merit selection, he said, would offer a way to produce as clean a bench as possible.
“We cannot have a society of laws if those sworn to uphold them are seen as willing to disregard them,” Williams said. “The courts are our last stance. We can’t have people thinking the deck is stacked. That’s no way to function in a society. Lawmakers are drawn from the people, but our courts are supposed to be our gold standard.”
One group that supports merit selection is Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, with which Williams and Alloway consulted during the crafting of the legislation.
In its own news release, PMC stated that merit selection is a crucial step toward ensuring that Pennsylvania citizens can be confident that their legal cases would be heard by qualified, fair and impartial judges who aren’t tainted by campaign dollars.
“Pennsylvanians deserve a system where judges are chosen based on candidates’ credentials, not their campaign war chests, political affiliation, where they live, a familiar name or where their name appears on the ballot,” PMC Executive Director Lynn A. Marks said in a statement. “The role of a judge is to make impartial decisions based solely on the facts and law, but judicial elections basically require judges to become politicians.
“To win, would-be jurists must seek political endorsements and huge campaign contributions from groups and individuals who may later appear before them,” Marks continued. "Judicial elections are designed to pick the best campaigners and fundraisers, not the best judges. Pennsylvanians need a system that is designed to get the most qualified, fair and impartial judges on the bench. People must believe they are getting a fair shake in the court system.”