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Observers Split on How Appellate Court Judges Are Selected

Legal observers are split on the idea of changing the way state appellate court judges are chosen. Reformers are calling for scrapping partisan elections in favor of an appointment process, but others aren’t so sure.

Some state lawmakers and four former governors have lined up to support the so-called “merit selection” process – a proposal to start appointing judges with the help of a nominating commission, the sitting governor and the state Senate.

Bruce Ledewitz, professor at Duquesne University School of Law, says the name itself is misleading. Judges, he argues, are chosen as a matter of policy and politics, not just merit.

He adds he’s never been able to make up his mind as to whether the merit selection is a good idea.

"Of course, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is mired in constant scandal and is giving election a bad name," Ledewitz said. "But on the other hand, a lot of the problems we’ve had in Pennsylvania government go to the makeup of our political class, and in an appointment system, those are the people who will be deciding who’s on the court."

The chief justice of the state Supreme Court isn’t rushing to support proposals to appoint appellate court judges.  

Ron Castille says if the commonwealth’s appellate court judges are to be appointed, a group other than a nominating commission needs to vet candidates.

"In the federal system, you know who looks into your background if you want to be a judge? It’s a little group called the Federal Bureau of Investigation," he said. "And I’ve seen what they do when they, when somebody comes up to them as a potential candidate for the federal court. It’s unbelievable."

Castille himself was elected to the Supreme Court in 1993 and plans to run for another 10-year term this fall.  

Legislative proposals to implement a so-called “merit selection” appointment process include no such independent vetting body.

Instead, the process would involve a nominating commission and the governor, with the state Senate having the option of final confirmation of candidates.

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