Split verdict on changing system for selecting Pa. appellate court judges

    Legal observers are split on the idea of changing the way Pennsylvania’s appellate court judges are chosen.

    Reformers are calling for scrapping partisan elections in favor of an appointment process. But others aren’t so sure.

    Some state lawmakers and four former governors have lined up to support the “merit selection” process — a proposal to begin appointing judges with the help of a nominating commission, the sitting governor, and the state Senate.

    But the name itself is misleading, says Bruce Ledewitz, a professor at Duquesne University School of Law. Judges, he argues, are chosen as a matter of policy and politics, not just merit.

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    He said he’s never been able to make up his mind as to whether the merit selection is a good idea.

    “Of course, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is mired in constant scandal and is giving election a bad name,” Ledewitz said. “But on the other hand, a lot of the problems we’ve had in Pennsylvania government go to the makeup of our political class. And in an appointment system, those are the people who will be deciding who’s on the court.”

    State Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Castille recently poured cold water on the idea of appointing appellate court judges.

    The proposed appointment process doesn’t involve any independent background check of candidates, he said, while federal judges who are chosen by appointment are vetted by the FBI.

    Castille himself was elected to the Supreme Court in 1993 and plans to run for another 10-year term this fall.

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