A bipartisan team of Pennsylvania state legislators wants to replace judicial elections with appointment by an independent commission.
Experts say what’s known as “merit selection” can help boost the quality of the state’s judges, but only if the commission is properly constituted to reflect the state’s full range of political and geographic interests.
“That [merit selection] system has worked well in a couple dozen states for awhile now. It most of the time has reduced the political mischief and the kind of big money Pennsylvania has seen,” said Bert Brandenburg, head of the national advocacy group Justice at Stake.
He said that for the most part, independent commissions have been able to set aside politics and focus on quality.
“[Members] may have their own political background, but they tend to check it at the door,” he said of other states’ commissions. “It’s very important for any commission to establish a culture where that happens. In Arizona, for example … they actually broadcast the proceedings on the Internet, people can watch and see that people actually are checking their politics.”
“In the end, that’s what you want — a quality judge, appointed without political games, and a commission that’s properly diverse and properly transparent,” Brandenburg said.
Merit selection has long been a popular cause among judicial reform advocates who worry about the role of money and partisan politics in judicial appointments. The cost of a successful judicial campaign in Pennsylvania is substantial — and rising. Candidates for Supreme Court alone spent more than $5 million in this year’s elections.
And critics have long argued that this kind of politicking can compromise the system’s integrity, creating the appearance of impropriety or worse.
Brandenburg said the lawmakers’ proposal would create what looks like a diverse and representative commission that could select quality candidates without being dominated by any one political or geographic faction.
“The commission [as proposed] has to be composed of lawyers and non-lawyers. It says they have to come from different counties all around the state,” he said. “They have to come from different political parties, and it says they can’t all be appointed by any one person or body. So some are appointed by the governor, some by the majority leader of the Senate, some by the minority leader.”
Any judges the commission selects would still have to be approved by the governor and the Senate, he said.
Still missing are the rules that would make the commissions’ proceedings fully transparent, but “that can be done in the implementing work as the commission goes forward,” Brandenburg said.
There will be plenty of time for that, even if things go as well as possible for the proposal. To amend the constitution, lawmakers will have to pass the proposal in two consecutive sessions, and then put it on the ballot for a statewide vote.