Nix sat impassively a few feet away while the attorney general criticized the court that Nix heads.
"I have never before taken a position on merit selection," Preate said in an interview after the ceremony.
Later, he referred to the Supreme Court fight in which Justice Rolf Larsen has said that Justices Stephen A. Zappala and Ralph J. Cappy have committed crimes and ethical improprieties. Preate said, "The more you examine what's developed . . . you come to the conclusion we ought to do something."
Preate also urged legislative passage of a pending constitutional amendment that would change the state's judicial discipline system by replacing the Judicial Inquiry and Review Board - a panel dominated by judges and controlled by the Supreme Court - with a system that is more open and less dominated by judges.
The legislature must approve the amendment by Feb. 8, he said, if the measure is to go before voters on the May 18 primary ballot. Though legislative leaders said such a timetable was feasible, the General Assembly is notorious for failing to meet deadlines.
While much of Preate's address dealt with matters ranging from drug enforcement to insurance fraud, the attorney general, widely considered a GOP front-runner in the 1994 gubernatorial race, listed the court reform measures as his two highest priorities.
Preate has hired two veteran prosecutors to investigate the accusations made in November by Larsen.
The two justices ruled in October that Larsen should be publicly reprimanded for providing information to a trial court judge about a pending case. Preate said yesterday he had "rejected" letters from the Supreme Court justices in which they said they could not cooperate with his investigation of Larsen's allegations because the matter itself was before them.
He said a statewide grand jury, expected to convene March 1, could use its subpoena power to try to force the justices to testify.
In an interview afterward, Nix said he was "disappointed" by the situation on the court. "My Daddy used to say, 'The world seems to go on, and things will work out,' " Nix said. "It's a difficult situation, but it's not an impossible situation, and it will be resolved."
Nix, who had previously recused himself from the Larsen case, would not comment specifically on the case involving Larsen's accusations.
Because of the court's problems, merit selection has re-emerged as a popular topic. Preate's endorsement comes at a time when even longtime opponents of the concept say they are rethinking their opposition.
Generally, merit selection involves the appointment of judges by the governor, based on recommendations from a nominating commission, and confirmation by the Senate.
Preate, however, said he was "intrigued" by a proposal being discussed by House Speaker H. William DeWeese (D., Greene), which would require the governor to select appellate nominees from a pool of Common Pleas Court judges. Those trial-court judges are elected.
In his interview, Nix said he, too, supported the concept of merit selection as long as the process was not "exclusionary."
Nix further said he did not believe there was a problem with the current judicial discipline system, which he referred to as a "model."
"Whenever you're talking about a judicial process, there shouldn't be a concern about judicial input," he said. "I don't think you can imply judges are going to condone conduct that's inappropriate."
Under proposed changes to the judicial discipline system, the JIRB would be replaced by the Judicial Conduct Board to investigate and pursue complaints against judges and a Court of Judicial Discipline to hold hearings and determine punishment.
The new system is designed to be more open and to reduce the power the Supreme Court has over the process. The JIRB's proceedings are private and the panel can only recommend but not mete out punishment. That's the job of the Supreme Court.
Because it is a constitutional amendment, the measure requires approval in two consecutive sessions of the General Assembly. The legislature approved the plan, for the first time, last summer.