Pennsylvania bill would change how judges are chosen

Posted: January 25, 2013

As jury selection began Wednesday in the corruption trial of suspended Pennsylvania Justice Joan Orie Melvin, proponents of judicial reform proposed a constitutional amendment that would end the current system of electing appellate judges and give the governor authority to appoint them.

The bill, introduced by State Sen. Anthony H. Williams (D., Phila.) and Republican State Sen. Richard Alloway, who represents Adams, York, and Franklin Counties, would end contested elections for state appellate judges, as well as members of the Supreme Court.

Under the proposal, the governor would select a nominee from a list of five forwarded by a nonpartisan nominating commission. The governor's nominee would be subject to Senate confirmation, and would stand for an uncontested retention election after completing one term.

"As citizens, we have to have utmost confidence in our judiciary, and, right now, that is simply not the case," Williams said. "As we face a number of critical issues, we cannot afford our high courts, our final arbiters of law, to succumb to forces of corruption."

The measure would also apply to judges of Commonwealth and Superior Courts.

A similar proposal died in the state House last year, opposed by trial lawyers, antiabortion activists, and others. It, like the measure introduced Wednesday, was a proposed constitutional amendment. For the constitution to be amended, the proposal must pass both chambers of the legislature in two consecutive sessions, and then be approved by voters.

Fueling the effort to revamp the system is the widespread perception that ever-growing amounts of money spent on judicial campaigns foster corruption and undermine public confidence. Many prominent defense lawyers privately decry Pennsylvania's system of electing judges, saying it has, at best, fostered mediocrity and, at worst, led to an atmosphere of judicial misconduct.

In the most recent embarrassment to the state judiciary, Orie Melvin pleaded not guilty in May to criminal charges that she used state employees and equipment to conduct her 2003 and 2009 election campaigns to the state Supreme Court. Her sister Janine Orie, who had been a judicial staffer, is also on trial.

Jury selection was completed Wednesday, and the trial is scheduled to begin Friday.

In 2011, two Luzerne County judges were sentenced to lengthy prison terms for their roles in the notorious kids-for-cash corruption case, seen by many as the worst case of misconduct in the juvenile justice system in U.S. history.

In that case, the judges took millions in kickbacks from for-profit juvenile detention centers, which they kept filled with a steady stream of young prisoners. Many of those children had not been represented by legal counsel before they were sent away.

In 2010, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School found that Pennsylvania Supreme Court elections consistently ranked at or near the top of special-interest spending.


Contact Chris Mondics at 215-854-5957 or cmondics@phillynews.com.

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