Nov 18 2009
Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell began a 3-month tour of the state in which he is calling for sweeping changes, intended to overhaul the notoriously broken political process in the state. Appropriately, the Governor began his education campaign in Luzerne County, where judicial corruption of an unprecedented scale has damaged the public’s confidence in government at all levels, but particularly in the judiciary.
One of the three core-changes the Governor is targeting to purge corruption from state politics is to switch to merit selection of appellate court judges. Speaking to various audiences, including the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader editorial board, the Scranton Chamber of Commerce, and students at Wilkes University, the Governor highlighted two of the serious flaws with our current system of judicial selection: confusion in the voting booth, and money. The Times-Leader reported:
‘People don’t have a clue who they are voting for,’ Rendell said. ‘In an exit poll conducted five years ago, voters were asked five minutes after they voted to name any of the judicial candidates they voted for, and 50 percent couldn’t remember one.'”
Rendell also criticized political campaign donations to judges. ‘Who gives money to judicial candidates? It’s lawyers, for the most part,’ he said.”
The antidote the Governor proposed is to put qualified judges on the bench through a system of merit selection, where they will be untainted by the corrupting influence of money that Luzernites are, unfortunately, all too familiar with.
This message was music to the ears of Lynn Marks and Shira Goodman of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts (PMC), an organization which has long been calling for Pennsylvania to adopt merit selection for the appellate courts. As PMC’s Lynn Marks explained:
‘Merit selection focuses on getting the most qualified candidates on the bench, offers an opportunity for qualified men and women of all backgrounds from all over Pennsylvania to serve and gets judges out of the fundraising business.'”
The other changes proposed in the Governor’s plan are to implement campaign-finance reform for elected politicians to limit the influence of lobbyists on the state’s lawmakers, and to prevent incumbent legislators from maintaining their power through absurd reapportionment of voting districts.
You will recall that in the just-passed race for a vacant seat on the state’s Supreme Court, vast sums of money were spent on negative advertising. According to many commentators, the race was particularly important to the political parties this year because of the reapportionment issue. In a state like ours, where judges hang party labels after their names (we are one of 6 states that elect judges at all levels in partisan elections), the Supreme Court’s role in deciding contested reapportionment questions becomes a political question and Supreme Court elections become tempting targets for the influence of big money.
We are delighted that Governor Rendell is bringing the problems with electing judges front and center, and think there is no better place to launch this message than a county that has felt first-hand what hell can be wrought by judges tainted by the influence of money.