In a show of bipartisanship, a conservative lawmaker from rural south-
central Pennsylvania and an urban Democrat joined forces this week to announce their introduction of a bill that would establish a merit-based system for choosing judges in the commonwealth.
State Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, and State Rep. Brian Sims, D-Philadelphia, announced on Monday their joint sponsorship of a House measure that would eliminate Pennsylvania’s system of popularly electing state jurists.
“I believe that it is time to have a conversation about how we select our judges,” Cutler said in a statement read at the news conference. “I personally believe that the integrity of our justice system requires that we select judges based on more than voter turn-out, name ID or fundraising ability. I believe we should be looking for the members of the bar with the highest qualifications, not just the best political skills.”
The two lawmakers formally introduced the bill during a Tuesday news conference in Harrisburg.
In his own prepared statement, Sims, who is known as being the first-ever openly gay member of Pennsylvania’s General Assembly, said that most state residents have consistently shown that they are ambivalent to the concept of choosing judges through partisan elections.
The turnout in last week’s election was below 10 percent in some counties, Sims noted, and only an estimated 14 to 17 percent statewide.
In addition to local municipal races, the Nov. 5 election included races for trial court judges and lower court jurists.
There was only one statewide contest, for an open seat on the state’s Superior Court, one of two lower-tier appeals courts in Pennsylvania.
“It’s time to remove partisan politics and campaign contributions from selecting our judiciary and implement a merit-based system for choosing Pennsylvania’s statewide judges,” Sims stated. “As you can see from the folks backing this effort, merit selection transcends party lines and geographical divides and pursues just one, clear goal: placing the most qualified and competent jurists in the courtroom.”
One of the people backing the move toward merit selection is Lynn Marks, executive director of the advocacy group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.
Marks, in a statement, said that it “makes sense” to select judges differently than members of the legislative and executive branches because jurists are indeed different than those other members of state government.
“Judges must decide cases solely on the facts and the law, not based on political considerations, platforms or constituencies,” she stated. “It just doesn’t make sense to have a totally partisan process for a nonpartisan job.”
And the problem with having money involved in the process to select jurists, Marks pointed out, is that those dollars often come from lawyers and special interest groups – the very same segment that often appear before judges in state courts.
Another supporter of the proposal to move to a merit-based system for selecting judges is state Rep. Pamela DeLissio, a Democrat representing parts of Northwest Philadelphia.
DeLissio voiced her support for the reform measure because, as she said, it would include a bipartisan, citizen nominating commission unlike the current system that involves election campaigning and the need to solicit monetary support.
Former Governors Ed Rendell and Tom Ridge both support a move toward judicial merit-selection, with Rendell saying the proposed system would “elevate the justice system in Pennsylvania and take it out of the political and fundraising environment,” and Ridge saying that changing the process for selecting state judges is “important for the integrity of the courts and is what the people of this state deserve.”
Cutler and Sims, the sponsors of the bill, say merit selection would be a sort of hybrid elective-appointive system, whereby a bipartisan citizens’ commission of lawyers and non-lawyers chosen by elected officials would nominate candidates for judgeships, after which the state Senate would have to give its approval.
The chosen jurist would then sit on the bench for a short term before standing for a nonpartisan retention election, according to the lawmakers’ proposal.
Merit selection, the two stated, would focus on a candidate’s qualifications, such as legal experience, reputation for ethical behavior, honesty, fairness and temperament.
And unlike the current system, judicial candidates could no longer be chosen because of their respective positions on the ballot, nor due to their fundraising capabilities or other factors.
Changing the judicial selection process would require a constitutional amendment, which would establish an Appellate Court Nominating Commission consisting of 15 members.
Six commission members would be appointed by the governor – no more than half could be from one political party, each member would have to hail from a different county, and two must be retired judges – eight would be chosen by the General Assembly, and one would be picked by the state attorney general.
Lobbyists, elected or appointed state officials, officers of political parties and organizations, and staff and family members of the appointers would be barred from serving on the commission.
Because it involves amending the commonwealth’s constitution, the bill must be passed in two consecutive legislative sessions and then be voted on by citizens in a public referendum.
Susan Carty, president of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, came out as another supporter of the merit selection measure.
“Pennsylvanians deserve to have their faith restored,” Carty said in a statement. “They deserve to believe their judges are impartial, independent and unencumbered.”
Those who served as Pennsylvania governor during the past 18 years, both Republicans and Democrats, including current Gov. Tom Corbett, have reportedly backed judicial merit selection.