The merits and pitfalls of electing judges is a constant source of debate among Pennsylvanians, especially at this time of the year.
In this week’s Center Square, WHYY’s Chris Satullo remarks that there is plenty of room for a more equitable approach to the workings of our judicial system.
Listen: [audio: satullo20090614.mp3]
Imagine you’re warming up for a church-league softball game. Glancing across the diamond, you watch as the other team’s captain peels three fresh 20-dollar bills out of his wallet, and stuffs them in the umpire’s palm.
“Hey,” you shout, “What gives here? Was that a bribe?”
The ump sniffs: “That was a separate transaction which will have no impact on my ability to call balls and strikes with utmost impartiality. After all, I’m an umpire.”
Would you buy that? Would you play the game, content that you’re getting a fair shake from the man in blue?
Not likely, mate.
So why accept similar behavior from a person in black robes, a judge who holds the power to imprison or to free, to enrich or impoverish?
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on just this issue. In a typically close decision, it ordered a West Virginia judge to recuse himself from a case involving a coal company whose head honcho had spent $3 million to help elect the selfsame jurist.
As your teenager might say: Duhhhh! Why was this even a close call?
Pennsylvania elects all its judges. Pennsylvania judges regularly embarrass the state. Coincidence? I think not.
Here’s what electing judges does. It forces them to beg campaign cash from the very people who would appear before them in court. It forces voters to choose from clogged slates of unknown names. Not surprisingly, those voters fall back on dumb factors such as ballot position, ethnic surnames and who bought the most TV ads.
Judicial elections have become costly showdowns between corporate and union lobbies, with clueless voters in the crossfire.
The obvious alternative, merit selection, has its own problems. It doesn’t so much take the politics out of choosing judges as move it behind closed doors. It’s preferable, but not perfect.
Here’s my modest proposal: Elect judges, but give voters a roster of candidates who’ve been screened and chosen by a diverse, transparent merit selection panel. This panel’s evaluations of all candidates would be made public. So would names of all the candidates’ donors, so voters could sense how many conflicts might hamper a nominee’s performance, if elected.
In sum, you’d still have judicial elections, but with candidates vetted by merit selection.
It’s a hybrid. And, as everybody knows, hybrids run cleaner and offer better mileage.