(2) An independent, fair, honorable and impartial judiciary is indispensable to our system of justice. The Pennsylvania legal system is founded upon the principle that an independent, fair, impartial, and competent judiciary, composed of persons of integrity, will interpret and apply the law that governs our society. The judiciary consequently plays a fundamental role in ensuring the principles of justice and the rule of law. The rules contained in this Code necessarily require judges, individually and collectively, to treat and honor the judicial office as a public trust, striving to preserve and enhance legitimacy and confidence in the legal system.
(3) Judges should uphold the dignity of judicial office at all times, avoiding both impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in their professional and personal lives. They should at all times conduct themselves in a manner that garners the highest level of public confidence in their independence, fairness, impartiality, integrity, and competence.
– Preamble, Pennyslvania Code of Judicial Conduct
The suspension and subsequent retirement of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery has led to renewed calls for reform of the partisan election system in Pennsylvania. The Allentown Morning Call called Justice McCaffery the “poster boy” of merit selection. Justice McCaffery himself has said that he would not be on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in a merit selection system.
Between the “kids for cash” scandal, Justice Orie Melvin’s conviction for campaign corruption, federal indictments of Philadelphia Traffic Court judges, and the recent pornographic e-mail scandal that embroiled the Supreme Court, Pennsylvania has seen more than its fair share of judicial scandals in recent years.
Currently, Pennsylvania appellate judges reach the bench through expensive, low-information, partisan elections, which means candidates need political skills, party support and fundraising connections to get on the bench. Money is often “dark,” coming from secret sources or from-out-of-state entities that funnel it to help certain candidates. Merit selection would allow judges from other parts of the state to be selected based on their qualifications, not because of fundraising ability, name recognition, political party, ballot position, or any other arbitrary reason.
The judicial branch is unique. Politics should not be involved in legal rulings, and citizens deserve a system where we can rely on judges to be qualified, impartial, and of the highest ethical caliber. The judiciary should be independent from outside influence and politics, and accountable only to the rule of law. And justices should not be worried about political blowback when making important legal decisions that affect the rights and liberties of individuals.
The Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts (PMC) plan, recently advocated for in a Philadelphia Inquirer editorial, recommends implementing a system of judicial selection similar to that of some other states. This would create a bipartisan nominating commission that recommends highly qualified candidates to the governor, who selects a candidate that the state Senate must then confirm. The judge would then serve a 4-year term before facing the voters in a retention election for a new 10-year term, with retention elections repeated every 10 years thereafter.
It won’t be easy – such a change would require the legislature to pass a merit selection bill in two consecutive sessions, followed by a statewide referendum to amend the Pennsylvania constitution. But it is becoming increasingly clear that it is time for Pennsylvanians to act. While no method of judicial selection is perfect, that should not prevent us from seeking to improve the system currently in place.
Next year, Pennsylvanians across the state will vote for three of the seven Supreme Court justices. This overhaul of the Court will have long-term implications for Pennsylvanians. With judicial elections becoming more and more expensive and partisan by the year, it will likely be a dogfight.
Merit selection will help ensure that all statewide judges have the necessary legal credentials and judicial temperament to match the dignity of the position. Judges must conform to the highest standards in both their personal and professional lives. Pennsylvanians should be able to have faith in our justice system. Judicial misbehavior, or even the perception of misbehavior, harms the reputation of the entire court system in the eyes of the public. While there are many excellent judges in Pennsylvania, we should do all we can to ensure that each and every appellate judge is qualified for the bench.
Recent Editorials Calling for Merit Selection
11/1/2014 – Scranton Times-Tribune – Use existing system to drive reform
10/29/2014 – Harrisburg Patriot News – Pennsylvania gets a peek at a better way of picking judges
10/28/2014 – Philadelphia Daily News – Justice Done
10/28/2014 – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – Where’s the merit? Another bad justice leaves the state’s top court
10/26/2014 – Philadelphia Inquirer – How to put order back in Pa. courts
10/23/2014 – The Sentinel (Carlisle, Pa.) – Select appellate judges by merit
10/21/2014 – Pottstown Mercury – Shameful actions of justices stain state Supreme Court
10/20/2014 – Philadelphia Daily News – Porn excuse for a court
Articles on the Calls for Reform in Pennsylvania
10/27/2014 – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – Should Pennsylvania judges be elected? Recent scandals force the question
10/25/2014 – Pittsburgh Tribune-Review – Pa. Supreme Court in ‘sad state’ as scandals tarnish reputation
10/25/2014 – WHYY Newsworks – Pa. Supreme Court imbroglio renews calls for changing judical selection process
10/22/2014 – KYW Newsradio 1060 Philadelphia – PA Supreme Court Scandal Leads To Calls For Statewide Court Reform