An article in the Allentown Morning Call outlines the candidates in the upcoming Pennsylvania appellate judicial elections, and how each is vying for voter attention.
The article supplies some resources for voters to learn more about each candidate’s qualifications, including the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Judicial Evaluation Commission, which is a “group of lawyers and non-lawyers who investigate, interview and rate statewide judicial candidates and appeals court judges seeking retention for another term.”
Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts Executive Director Lynn Marks is quoted in the article, noting that “People don’t think about the courts. It’s often called the least understood branch.” Marks points out that “it’s important for people to know what [judicial candidates] have done. What kind of choices they have made? What in their background prepares them for service as a judge?”
Judicial independence has taken center stage in the news recently, and the people of Pennsylvania may, as a consequence, be turning a keener eye to the qualifications and backgrounds of those who would be judges. In particular, the issue of third-party financial influence in judicial elections has garnered a great deal of attention.
In a judicial forum held last Friday evening between the Republican and Democratic candidates for the Superior Court, both candidates were given the opportunity to ask the other a question. David Wecht, the Democratic candidate, chose to give air time to the continuing issue of money in politics, asking Republican Vic Stabile if he would sign a pledge denouncing third-party interest group advertisements.
Stabile declined, first stating that he was not about to sign a paper he’d never seen before, then citing First Amendment concerns – though stressing that should any advertisement arise that “is not fair, is not legitimate, [or] hits below the belt,” that he would “be the first person standing up denouncing it,” regardless of whether he had signed a pledge, according to Harrisburg Patriot-News coverage of the event.
Still, the exchange Friday between the two candidate underscores the growing awareness of the influence money can have in judicial politics, where one expects – or should be able to expect – the greatest degree of impartiality.
Some amount of accountability should be placed on the candidates for how third parties contribute to their campaigns, even if only in the form of a pledge to denounce wrongdoing. However, such a measure is still only remedial to the real problem – that special interest dollars and partisan politics occlude the actual merits and qualifications of candidates, and cause justice itself to be at grave risk of being purchased by those with the deepest pockets.
Rather than have candidates merely pledge to denounce the appearance of third party wrongdoing after the fact, Pennsylvania should be allowed to have a system of judicial selection that precludes it altogether.
This issue is clearly on the minds of candidates, and can also be expected to be in the minds of voters in the upcoming elections.