Sep 17 2008

Merit Selection Supporters To Senate Judiciary Committee: It’s Time for a Change

Merit Selection supporters gathered in Harrisburg yesterday for a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.  Lynn Marks and Shira Goodman of PMC and PMCAction were joined by former Superior Court Judge Phyllis W. Beck and representatives of civic groups, business organizations, and lawyers and bar associations in advocating for adoption of Merit Selection for the Pennsylvania appellate courts. A full list of those who presented testimony and copies of written submissions are available on our Report on the Senate Hearing page.

At the beginning of the hearing, Senator Jane Earll, prime sponsor of the Merit Selection legislation, expressed her reasons for supporting judicial selection reform:”I believe a better court, a more diverse court will result in a system that isn’t dependent on money and ballot positions.”

Coalition members testified about the problems inherent in electing judges, particularly the increasing expenses associated with judicial campaigns and the negative perceptions caused by fundraising by judicial candidates.  Marks, executive director of PMC and PMCAction explained, “The current electoral system — with its emphasis on fundraising and campaign prowess — is broken and is undermining public confidence in the judiciary and our courts.  The solution that is best designed to get the most qualified, fair and impartial judges on the appellate bench and to get those juges out of the fundraising business is Merit Selection.”

In addition, coalition partners explained that Merit Selection offers greater opportunities for qualified candidates from diverse backgrounds to reach the appellate bench.  Edward Lanza, board member of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Central Pennsylvania told the Committee: “We’re persuaded the Merit Selection process would be more likely to elevate qualified minority candidates to the appellate bench.”

Senator Earll and Senator Mary Jo White actively questioned those presenting testimony.  In response to comments that Merit Selection supporters aim to disenfranchise voters, Senator White explained:

I object to that statement about the franchise. I believe in the franchise and so does Sandra Day O’Connor [who is a supporter of Merit Selection]. . . . In my experience, the current system discriminates against people who can’t raise large amounts of money to run campaigns — women, those from small counties and minorities.  This tries to level the playing field.

Gene Barr, Vice President for Government Relations of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business & Industry agreed, explaining the Merit Selection legislation “is giving Pennsylvanians the opportunity to decide if they want to change the process” of how they select appellate judges.  On this very issue Senator White noted:

1969 [when last a referendum was held on this issue] was forty years ago.  A lot has changed in that time, the money, television ads, out of state money. . . Let’s ask the people again.  It shows a lot of confidence in the voters to ask “are you confident in voting for appellate court judges?”

We thank Senator Greenleaf and the Judiciary Committee for holding this hearing.  We hope it will be the first step in an ongoing dialogue about how we select appellate court judges — a dialogue that will culiminate with giving the people of Pennsylvania the opportunity to decide for themselves.

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