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Politics & Government

Judicial Elections Debate Rekindled

The Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee is gearing up for a springtime push of bills to overhaul the way appellate court judges are chosen for the bench.

Currently, judges of the Commonwealth Court, Superior Court, and State Supreme Court run for office in partisan elections.

However, some legislators and activist groups have criticized the election of judges as overly political. House Judiciary Committee Chair Ron Marsico said partisan judicial elections give people reason to think judges are being bought and sold.

"Many times, statewide, the electoral system comes down to who can raise the most money and produce the best ads and campaign the hardest. Really, none of these qualities are relevant to being a good judge and relevant to the judicial system," said Marsico, a Dauphin County Republican.

Reformers are pushing for a new system called "merit selection," in which the governor would choose from judicial candidates proposed by a special panel.

In order to change the system, an amendment to the state Constitution would be needed. A "merit selection" bill would need to pass the General Assembly in two consecutive sessions, and then Pennsylvania voters would have the final say in a ballot referendum.

Organizations Argue For and Against Reforms

The Pennsylvania Association of Justice (formerly the PA Trial Lawyers Association) opposes the "merit selection" reform. The PAJ's Mark Phenicie said the proposal would amount to a politicized appointment of judges.

"We believe that the politics of the many, the voters, is actually less political than having a commission set up basically out of view of the public, which recommends to the governor various candidates," said Phenicie.

He said the current system produces good judges, and reform is unnecessary.

On the other hand, the group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts supports the merit selection bills. Lynn Marks of PMC said the reforms uphold the impartiality of judges by making large campaign contributions a moot point.

"It has been put together so that nobody can control the process, and the public still has a role in a merit selection system," said Marks.

Marks said there would be public involvement in the commission to select candidates.