Inquirer Editorial: Judicial elections lead to distrust of the courts

Posted: January 26, 2013

The courtroom drama that began playing out this week in Pittsburgh provides the perfect, though troubling, backdrop for a renewed push to reform how Pennsylvania's top judges are chosen.

If any case were a primer on the need to remove the state's appellate courts from the hurly-burly of partisan elections, the corruption trial of a suspended Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice just tops the bill.

Allegheny County prosecutors contend that Joan Orie Melvin, while serving as a lower appellate court judge, used her taxpayer-paid staff to campaign for her Supreme Court seat in both 2003 and 2009. She's fighting the charges, along with her sister Janine Orie, who's on trial with Melvin for alleged politicking while working as an aide on Melvin's judicial payroll.

The charges go to the heart of what's wrong with having voters pick judges for the Supreme, Superior, and Commonwealth Courts, rather than having them appointed by the governor with legislative approval from among candidates recommended by a bipartisan panel, as is done in many other states.

Judicial candidates, often already serving on lower courts, are forced to campaign by raising vast sums from campaign contributions. Most of the donors are lawyers who, inevitably, are likely to appear before the judicial candidates who win seats on the bench. In recent years, high-stakes judicial campaigns also pulled in vast sums from businesses, unions, and other groups seeking the courts' ear.

If the charges against Melvin turn out to be proven after an expected four-week trial, the justice will have been shown to cut corners on campaign expenses by illegally tapping her court resources. As the statewide judicial reform group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts notes, the case shows "the critical need for getting judges out of the campaign business."

Indeed, there was no better time to push ahead with court reforms before the legislature that include switching to a system of appointing appellate judges than this week, as jurors were being chosen in the Melvin trial.

Under a constitutional amendment proposed Wednesday by State Sen. Anthony H. Williams (D., Phila.) and State Sen. Richard Alloway (R., Adams, Franklin, York), the state would go to a hybrid system of appointing appellate judges. After an initial term, judges would go before the state's voters for retention.

The proposal would follow other states' practices, where a nominating panel sends the governor recommendations for appointment with an eye not only toward finding those most qualified, but also assuring that the state's judiciary is diverse and representative.

The constitutional change will require approval by state lawmakers during two legislative sessions, followed by voters' approval. Even with the embarrassment of Melvin's indictment, suspension, and, now, trial, special-interest groups traditionally opposed to merit-based judicial appointment aren't likely to drop their opposition. But what should be insisted upon by state lawmakers, as well as Gov. Corbett - a supporter of an appointed appellate court system - is that the voters get the chance to decide this issue for themselves.

In surveys, Pennsylvania residents have made it clear that their judiciary's reputation continues to suffer under the current system. By overwhelming majorities, they say the presence of so much campaign cash sloshing around judicial elections creates the impression that justice is for sale. By similar margins, citizens say they would like to have their say.

So before another judicial scandal puts a cloud over the state judiciary, Pennsylvanians on all sides of this issue should be given the chance to vote for change.

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