Nov 21 2013
The two major political parties are sharply divided on many issues. Some issues are “Republican.” Others are “Democratic” But merit selection is neither. As stated by Rep. Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster), “merit selection transcends political ideology. It’s Republican. It’s Democrat. It’s bipartisan.”
At a news conference announcing legislation to institute merit selection at the appellate court level, Rep. Cutler was joined by Rep. Brian Sims (D-Philadelphia) and Rep. Pamela DiLissio (D-Montgomery). Lynn Marks, Executive Director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, and Susan Carty, President of the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters, were also in attendance.
The merit selection resolution was introduced and referred to the House Judiciary Committee on Monday, November 18, 2013. The text of the bill is available here.
“There are no red herrings here. Both parties are supporting [the merit selection legislation] because it is really good policy,” said Rep. Sims.
Merit selection is good policy because it doesn’t make sense to use a completely partisan process to select people for a job that is nonpartisan. As stated by Marks, “justice is not conservative, Republican, liberal, or Democrat.” Instead, justice is all about “ensuring that all Pennsylvanians can come to court knowing their cases will be heard by fair and qualified judges.”
According to Rep. Cutler, this goal is frustrated by judicial elections because the political process has rewarded name recognition and the ability to raise money rather than credentials. Rep. Sims added that spending in judicial elections is very high and “three-quarters of Pennsylvanians think that judges are [influenced] by campaign contributions.”
Compounding these problems is the fact that media coverage of judicial elections is sparse, and “because of all the pressures of the day and the fact that people are busy, most voters cannot do their homework on judges,” Rep. DiLissio commented. As a result, voters often cast their ballots based on a variety of factors that have nothing to do with the candidates’ qualifications. For instance, people commonly vote for candidates that share their political affiliation or are from their hometown. Voters will also frequently vote for candidates that have familiar sounding names. This turns judicial elections into a bit of a crap-shoot, and the selection of judges should not be left to chance.
Under merit selection, there would be an exhaustive vetting process. A 15-member bipartisan citizens’ nominating commission would review the qualifications of prospective judges, including their legal experience, reputation for ethical behavior, and fairness. The governor would then nominate one candidate for each open appellate court seat from a short list created by the commission, and the Senate would confirm or reject the nominees. Confirmed judges would serve a four year term before facing the voters in an uncontested retention election, and they would run for retention every ten years thereafter.
It is important to remember that only the people can change how judges in Pennsylvania are chosen. Any change in the current system must be approved by the voters in a constitutional referendum, so the people have the final say. But the people should vote to approve merit selection because “the election system has proven to fuel the public’s lack of trust, faith, and confidence [in the judiciary]. Pennsylvanians have the right to have their faith restored,” said Rep. DiLissio.