Inquirer Editorial: Electing judges undermines trust in the judiciary

State Sen. Jane Orie (R., Allegheny, left) and Justice Joan Orie Melvin.
State Sen. Jane Orie (R., Allegheny, left) and Justice Joan Orie Melvin. (KEITH SRAKOCIC / Associated Press)
Posted: September 17, 2011

While the spectacle of a Pittsburgh-area state senator being tried for improperly aiding her sister's state Supreme Court election campaign is bad, at least the case could give a welcome push to renewed efforts to enact reforms that would help shield all Pennsylvania appellate judges from politics.

State Sen. Jane Orie (R., Allegheny) may or may not be convicted of ordering her Senate staff to perform political tasks to help Justice Joan Orie Melvin's campaign. But as long as appellate judges are chosen in contested elections, Pennsylvanians will continue to suspect - even if wrongly - that politics taints justice in the state.

In poll after poll, including one taken last year, citizens say that they suspect campaign contributions affect judges' decisions.

With millions of dollars sloshing around elections for the Supreme, Superior, and Commonwealth Courts, even the most upright statewide judicial candidates are placed in a vulnerable position.

They're taking money from lawyers and corporate, union, and other special interests that are likely to have a stake in cases that could appear before their courts.

There is a better way: It's the merit-based appointment of appellate judges, as it is done in New Jersey and numerous other states.

A bipartisan proposal to make such a switch has just been introduced in Harrisburg by state Reps. Brian Cutler (R., Lancaster) and Josh Shapiro (D., Montgomery), with companion Senate legislation by Sen. Jane Earll (R., Erie).

The measure deserves a thorough airing and a vote by both the House and Senate, so that lawmakers' constituents will know exactly where their representatives stand on this important reform.

Despite entrenched opposition to appointing judges, 93 percent of the state's residents say they want to vote on how appellate judges are selected. And as the statewide reform group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts notes, voters unquestionably deserve "the chance to make their voices heard."

Even with an appointed appellate bench, voters would have a front-row seat on the process by which a citizens' commission would recommend candidates for appointment by the governor and Senate confirmation.

Then, after the appointed judges have served four years, voters would decide by retention election whether the judges get to keep their black robes.

Other states' experience leaves no doubt that an appointed appellate bench would mean judges are more likely to be selected on the basis of qualifications and their ability to be fair and impartial.

Citizens, as a result, would have a greater assurance that justice was not being auctioned to the highest bidder.

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