The way Pa. picks its judges is broken. But it’s still better than this GOP alternative | Opinion

(Patrick Feller/Flickr)

By Mark O’Keefe

Only the Pennsylvania Legislature could make something bad even worse: partisan judicial elections.

As a reminder, Keystone State voters, the majority of whom are armed with only the tiniest slivers of information, are routinely asked to pick candidates for state Supreme, Superior, and Commonwealth courts.

To say that the elections are a farce probably understates the severity of the situation.

We’re only one of seven states to hold Supreme Court elections, and only one of eight to hold elections for appellate court judges.

Compounding this absurdity is the fact that the candidates running for those seats are largely constrained on commenting on issues that might come before them such as abortion, the death penalty, or any hot topic of the day, which might help the voters in deciding who should represent them on the bench.

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Like real estate, the decision often comes down to one thing: location, location, location.

Take a look at the ballot: Below each candidate’s name is the county where he or she resides. That’s probably the number one reason why voters cast their ballots for one judge over another. Voters in Western Pennsylvania hate anyone who comes from Philadelphia, so they’d just as soon take a leap from the Roberto Clemente Bridge as cast a ballot for a judicial candidate from Philadelphia.

The same holds true on the other end of the state. Other factors that come into play are ethnicity, gender, and ballot position — none of which has a thing to do with whether someone is actually qualified to sit on the statewide bench.

While that’s terrible enough on its own, Pennsylvania has predictably found a way to make this process even uglier.

To get elected, judicial candidates are forced to seek the political and financial support of politicians, including legislators, from across the state. You have to wonder how tainted they become in the process.

It’s certainly not an ideal situation for judges who are supposed to be above that sort of thing once they get seated on the bench.

The solution obviously is to set up some type of commission which would then give a list of qualified and experienced candidates to the governor, who would then pick someone from the list. The candidate would then have to be approved by one or both chambers of the state Legislature.

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Such a setup has been used for years to pick justices to the U.S. Supreme Court. And while numerous questions have been raised about the candidates selected by presidents, no one has questioned the wisdom of the process.

Certainly no one is advocating that we elect justices to the U.S. Supreme Court. But now Republicans in the Pennsylvania Legislature think they’ve found a better way to pick judges, a couple of them, in fact.

Thanks to the backing of GOP lawmakers, the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee recently voted for two proposals that amend the state constitution to select judges from different parts of the state.

One proposal would generate a list of qualified candidates. The governor would nominate candidates from the list, subject to Senate confirmation.

However, there would be three lists, representing different regions across the state.The other proposal would elect Supreme, Superior and Commonwealth Court judges from districts the General Assembly would draw.

The sponsor, Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, said regional elections would be fairer because Philadelphia and Allegheny County judges tend to dominate the courts.

Never mind that of the seven justices on the state’s Supreme Court only two were born in either Allegheny or Philadelphia counties. Imagine the outcry if justices were nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court in such a manner.

Also don’t forget that there are more attorneys practicing in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia than in any other part of the state.

Put aside Diamond’s fuzzy logic, though.

The real reason behind GOP support for change is the Supreme Court’s ruling last year which overturned the gerrymandering of congressional districts drawn by Republican legislators.

That ruling resulted in several Democrats winning seats in the newly drawn congressional districts. GOP lawmakers are still smarting from that setback, thus their desire for geographical representation, which would favor Republicans who outnumber Democrats in rural areas.

There’s a good chance at least one of the plans might pass both the House and Senate. But in order to amend the constitution, legislation would have to pass in two consecutive sessions before going to the voters for approval — a high bar.

In the end, there’s little chance of anything changing in the way Pennsylvanians selects their statewide judges.

It might still be a bad process but at least it won’t get any worse.

Correction: An earlier version of this column misstated the constitutional amendment process in Pennsylvania. 

Capital-Star Opinion contributor Mark O’Keefe is the former editorial page editor of The Uniontown Herald-Standard. He writes from Mechanicsburg, Pa. His work appears biweekly. 

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