The Harrisburg Patriot-Times, which recently ran our opinion piece in support of merit selection, published a letter yesterday in which the author questioned whether merit selection of judges is any better than electing them. While we thank the author for mentioning the work we do to educate voters, we feel obliged to make clear that there is a big difference between the two methods of judicial selection.
The author reasons that because, from his experience, retention elections produce very low voter turnout whether the judge was initially elected or appointed, the public must be equally satisfied with judges in both systems, because:
In Pennsylvania and in Colorado, where I had once resided, retention elections have notoriously poor turnout. Judges routinely win retention on voter turnout of only 17 to 25 percent of registered voters. The conclusion I draw from this is that electing judges for their first term is no better or worse than merit-selection.”
We must respectfully disagree with this broad conclusion. The problem with electing judges is not merely the risk of getting less qualified candidates. The biggest problem with electing judges is that even if an election were to produce the exact same judges as would merit selection, elections beget campaigns, campaigns beget expenses, and expenses beget donations. Once money is injected into the mix, there is a perception that those who support the candidate will have more influence before the court than will others.
Our recent Supreme Court race is a telling example of this. Both candidates, Joan Orie Melvin and Jack Panella, were rated as highly recommended by the PA Bar Association. According to experts and editorial boards, either candidate could have served competently, and either could have been chosen through a merit selection process. And under either system, the winner could be removed from the court in a retention election if he or she were to fail to live up to the standards of the electorate.
So far so good. But in Pennsylvania, instead of vetting the candidates before a non-partisan group, the candidates were forced to raise gobs of money from the very groups likely to appear before them. In fact, the candidates accused each other of being influenced by the money each had received, as we pointed out in our piece in the Patriot-News.
Can the public help but question the impartiality of a court under these conditions? Can we really have faith that politics will play no part in challenges to the upcoming reapportionment of state legislative districts that go before the court when the political parties spend so much money getting candidates elected?
The influence of money, real or perceived, is something that even the most ardent voter-education campaigns can’t overcome. While we strongly believe in voter education, and are often frustrated at the dearth of media coverage of judicial elections, only merit selection can truly take money out of the mix.
Tags: campaing finance
, Harrisburg Patriot-News
, judicial elections
, Merit Selection
, Orie Melvin
, Supreme Court