Will Pa. judges merit selection in future?

Posted: March 02, 2012

THE 2009 BATTLE between Republican Joan Orie Melvin and Democrat Jack Panella for a state Supreme Court justice seat set a record $5 million in fundraising on a campaign for a court post.

State Sen. Jane Orie, Melvin's sister, is now on trial in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court on allegations that she used her staff to campaign for Melvin's bid to the high court - a bid Melvin won in the 2009 race. Another sister, Janine Orie, who served as Melvin's aide, faces a separate trial.

The case is just one example to showcase how expensive and messy campaign fundraising can get for a position many would say should be above dollar influences.

"We need to get the money out of [the judicial system]," Bob Heim, board chairman of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts (PMC), which supports merit selection, told the state House Judiciary Committee yesterday at a public hearing at the National Constitution Center.

Although most judges follow the law, he said, there is the perception that they may not if they have accepted campaign money from lawyers arguing before them.

The House Judiciary Committee is considering two bills, HB 1815 and 1816, sponsored by Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, that would set up a merit-selection system to fill vacancies for the state's appellate posts - Supreme Court justices and Superior and Commonwealth Court judges.

(The bills don't deal with judges at the Common Pleas or Municipal Court levels.)

The proposal would require a constitutional amendment and would be voted on by the public in a referendum. The amendment would create a 15-member nominating commission to screen candidates and develop a list of potential nominees for the governor.

Commission members would be chosen by the governor, legislative leaders and civic and other groups, and would be diverse in political, geographic, gender and ethnic backgrounds. One member would be a law-school dean.

The eventual nominee would have to undergo a Senate confirmation hearing. As judge, the person would serve an initial term of four years and then go before voters in retention elections.

During the hearing, PMC leaders testified during one panel session. Deputy Director Shira Goodman said that there are six states that now elect all their judges: West Virginia, Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, Illinois and Pennsylvania.

Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery, questioned supporters of the bills as to whether the proposed system would actually be better. The bill takes the public out of the selection process and puts in special-interest groups who would pick the people on the nominating commission, he said.

To that, Heim replied: "I don't see it that way at all."

Stephens added: "My concern is they all have PACs."

Heim retorted: "Do you think the deans of the three major law schools have PACs? . . . Come on!"

After the hearing, Stephens said that he hasn't "formulated a final opinion yet" on the bills.

The last time that merit selection was on the ballot was 1968, when it was narrowly defeated, Goodman said, adding: "Since then, elections have gotten more expensive."

Contact Julie Shaw at 215-854-2592 or shawj@phillynews.com.

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