Apr 22 2015
With the primary for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court race looming, the race promises to be a “game changer” for the court. With an unprecedented three seats open on the court, the race is one of “the most significant races in state history.” The vacancies on the high court exist in the wake of numerous scandals, including the resignation of Justice Seamus McCaffery for sending out pornographic emails and the departure of Justice Joan Orie Melvin amid her conviction for public corruption.
John Gedid, who formerly served on the Supreme Court rules committee, called the 2015 election a “blockbuster race,” noting that whoever wins will determine the political makeup of the court. With the significant number of seats opening, it is almost inevitable that lawyers and special interest groups will get involved, and will be pouring large sums of money into candidates’ campaigns. Lynn Marks of PMC commented, stating, “Money too often comes from lawyers and interest groups who care about the outcome of races. And yet when we go to court we want to have justice. We want to feel like that judge is fair and impartial and you don’t want to be thinking well gee I wonder if my opponent made a large contribution to the judge.”
And that is precisely one (of many) problems with judicial elections. Judges are supposed to be neutral arbiters of the law. But when special interest groups and lawyers get involved, some contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars to judicial campaigns, and those same individuals appear in front of the judge they contributed money to, some begin to question whether it is possible for that judge to remain neutral and decide the case solely based on the facts and the law. Even if the judge is neutral, simply the appearance of impropriety is problematic. The public loses faith in a judiciary that does not appear to be deciding cases in an impartial manner, in a judiciary that could be basing its decision on whether one litigant contributed money to its campaign or not. Public confidence in the judiciary is crucial, and judicial elections harm that confidence.
One of the only ways to solve this problem is to change the system. Elections are inherently political, but judges are not politicians. Judges are not supposed to cater to special interests, or to make campaign promises. So does it make sense to elect judges? With three seats open on the Supreme Court, this election cycle promises to be a spectacle. We can prevent this type of spectacle from reoccurring in the future by moving toward a merit selection system. It is time to put a stop to judicial elections – it is time for merit selection in Pennsylvania.