A western Pennsylvania lawmaker has introduced a bill that would amend
the state constitution to require judges running for retention to list their party affiliation on the election ballot.
State Rep. Ted Harhai, a Democrat representing portions of Fayette and Westmoreland Counties, recently introduced House Bill 1986, which he says would help eliminate any sense of impropriety over a judge’s rulings while simultaneously working to promote public confidence in the judicial system.
In his co-sponsorship memorandum circulated to fellow legislators back in December, Harhai wrote that judges should be required to disclose their political party affiliation because it would give voters a better sense of who is contributing to the jurists’ campaigns.
Those running for judgeship in Pennsylvania have a party designation listed beside his or her name on the election ballot when he or she first runs for office.
Party affiliations are not required to be listed, however, when judges run for retention every 10 years.
“Many people across the Commonwealth find themselves in front of judges who every 10 years must run for retention to keep their court bench seat,” Harhai wrote in his memo. “Lawyers often endorse, contribute to and assist campaigns of judges before whom they practice and have pending cases.”
While campaign finance reports are public documents, the information may not be timely enough to reveal all attorney, or party, contributions in particular cases to voters who are choosing judges at the ballot box, the lawmaker wrote.
“I strongly believe that judges should take the initiative to routinely disclose complete, current information about campaign contributions,” Harhai wrote. “One of the easiest way[s] to do this is to disclose party affiliation. This would eliminate any appearance of impropriety or questions about a judge’s rulings and promote public confidence in the judiciary branch of government.”
Records show that the measure was referred to the House Judiciary Committee on Jan. 27.
Not everyone sees Harhai’s bill as the appropriate response to the calls for more judicial transparency.
“We believe that this amendment would inject more partisanship into retention elections rather than less,” Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, told Law360.
Marks told the site that with a decade’s worth of experience on the bench, Pennsylvania judges should be judged based on their job performance and not based on their political affiliation.
“I understand that people have a hard time making meaningful decisions about the judiciary, but the answer to that is that parties that are informed – good government groups, the media, the bar association – should do a better job about educating the public on the role of the course and the role of judges.”
Because Harhai’s bill would mean amending the state constitution, the measure would have to be passed by the General Assembly in two consecutive legislative sessions and then be voted on in a public referendum.
Meanwhile, another bill making its way around the legislature would scrap judicial elections all together.
The bipartisan proposal, which is jointly sponsored by Reps. Bryan Cutler, (R-Lancaster), and Brian Sims, (D-Phila.), would establish a merit-based system for choosing state judges.
In November, when the merit selection bill was introduced, Cutler stated that judges should be selected based on their professional qualifications, and not based on their campaigning skills and political prowess.
“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,” Cutler said during a news conference late last year.