It seems many state lawmakers agree that the current election system of selecting statewide judges in Pennsylvania needs to go. Increasingly, lawmakers debate not whether it ought to be replaced, but rather what system would best replace it.
Recently, several lawmakers and advocates gathered for a special panel on merit selection featured on the Pennsylvania Cable Network. The panel featured key players in the move away from statewide judicial elections. Among the panelists were Senator Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia), Senator John Eichelberger (R-Blair/Bedford), Kathleen Wilkinson, Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, and Lynn Marks, Executive Director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts
Although the panelists recognized a need to replace the current system, just what ought to replace it was debated. Senator Anthony Williams, Lynn Marks, and Kathleen Wilkinson made the argument for merit selection of statewide judges in support of Senate Bill 298. Senator Eichelberger proposed dividing up the state into geographically specific districts with candidates running from those districts. The main thing both proposals share is that they would both replace the current system. But merely replacing it is not enough.
When a system like judicial elections is being replaced, one must begin by asking: why is it being replaced? The answers to that question can point us to what a new system ought to look like. Primarily, using this method, the new system should NOT carry the same inherent flaws as the system it replaces.
There’s logic to this approach. First, by questioning why a system is being replaced, we are forced to fully evaluate the merits and demerits of the current system. This gives us insight into what a new system is meant to achieve. Secondly, it gives clear indication on what we are trying to remove in the first place. A replacement ought to ensure that flaws are corrected, not redistributed or maintained.
The current system of electing statewide judges needs to be replaced for several identifiable inherent flaws. First, electing judges requires campaigning and all its defects. Among those are fundraising among potential future court users and the potential to feel the need to mold one’s judicial views to the voters’ views. Secondly, statewide judicial elections do not offer much for voters to vote on. Although we are voting for a judicial candidate, we often don’t know exactly who that candidate really is and what qualifications that candidate brings to the table.
In a system that would create geographical districts we still see some of the same problems we sought to remove in the first place. Although the local districts will be more familiar with their respective candidates, the candidates will nonetheless find themselves politicking, and the pernicious fundraising of campaigns would remain. After all, although they are smaller districts, they would still be judicial elections. The candidates would need to fundraise and may continue to feel the need to mold their views.
Merit selection removes these concerns while maintaining those bits we want to keep. Clearly, statewide judicial hopefuls would no longer need to fundraise or campaign. Yet the qualifications of judicial candidates would be more highly scrutinized and the citizens of Pennsylvania would still participate.
The nomination commission in a merit selection system would comb through each candidate’s qualifications. They would not simply give the “go ahead” for candidates at the top of the ballot or candidates from a particular political persuasion. Instead, they would turn to the merits of each candidate. And, as Lynn Marks pointed out, the citizens “would still be involved.”
First, the voters would make the ultimate call on changing the system through a constitutional amendment implementing merit selection via referendum. Secondly, the citizenry would be represented on the commission. And lastly, and most important, the voters would have the option to vote whether or not to keep a particular judge through retention elections. Senator Williams put it well when he said, “[t]he right to vote is a privilege that people in my community died for,” and ultimately the voters would have their say.
Despite any disagreement over new proposals, it is clear change is needed. Lynn Marks described it well, saying, “I think the takeaway for today is that we all agree that the current system of electing statewide judges is broken.” The best way to “fix” that broken system is to remove the flaws. Merit selection would do just that and more. It would remove the current flaws while advancing the goal of choosing the most fair, impartial, and qualified judges. As Marks said, it’s “the better way.”
View PCN-TV’s special panel here.