I agree that confidence in the judiciary is highly important. However, while there are many examples of judges behaving badly, the system is not broken. And, despite claims to the contrary, there is no empirical evidence that judges change their views on a case to benefit campaign contributors.
The current method of selection is highly transparent. Candidates run in public elections with their philosophies and preferences visible to the public. The nontransparent alternative would have a committee dominated by political elites passing judgment on candidates using whatever criteria they see fit.
Moving away from transparent elections would deprive voters of meaningful choices, effectively disenfranchising them, while allowing a roomful of elites to decide who is worthy of serving on the bench.
Political scientist Jim Gibson examined perceptions of the judiciary in Kentucky, where he asked people questions about the legitimacy of the state Supreme Court before, during, and after an election. He found that legitimacy increased by the end of the electoral process. To be sure, certain things, including negative ads, caused legitimacy to increase less, but still the net effects on legitimacy were positive. He found something similar in Pennsylvania.
Also, as recent elections in Iowa and Florida have taught us, moving to an appointment system with retention elections does not remove hard-fought campaigns or interest-group contributions from the equation. Rather, retention elections make it more likely that opposition can crop up at the last minute (because there are no candidate filing deadlines) and catch an incumbent off guard, leaving him or her little time to effectively respond to attacks.
Before embarking on constitutional reform of a co-equal branch of government, Pennsylvania legislators should consult the actual evidence on judicial elections. If they do, they'll find that the proposed reforms would solve none of the ills identified, and could actually make them worse.
Chris Bonneau is an associate professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh. E-mail him at email@example.com.