The state Supreme Court is beset by feuding and allegations. The judicial discipline system puts in another poor showing. An outgoing justice calls for doing away with Pennsylvania’s judicial elections, while trial lawyers and organized labor pour millions into the partisan contests and line up against efforts to do away with them. “A moderate and badly needed judicial reform bill sits in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives,” said an editorial in The Philadelphia Inquirer in the mid-1980s. “If it is not approved before Aug. 5, the people of Pennsylvania will have to wait until at least 1987.”
For stories of eternal return set in the Keystone State, Groundhog Day has nothing on the debate over replacing judicial elections with an appointment process known as merit selection. And so last week, in the wake of yet another Supreme Court scandal and amid yet another cash-steeped judicial election, state legislators introduced yet another bill to pare back judicial elections in favor of appointments. It’s a moderate bill, affecting only the appellate courts and preserving the electorate’s prerogative to dismiss appointed judges after they complete a term. But the same special interests that killed reforms 30 years ago have already signaled their intent to do so again.
Merit selection has never prevailed in Harrisburg because the seemingly anodyne issue fails to exercise the public. But it should. Low-interest judicial elections, dominated by political parties, moneyed interests, and sheer chance, have ceded Pennsylvania’s judiciary to the same forces that run roughshod over the rest of its government. As a predictable result, what should be the most independent and impartial branch of government is constantly brought low by corruption and clownishness.
Reps. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, and Madeleine Dean, D-Montgomery, deserve credit for the latest effort to join most of the country in taking money and partisanship out of at least a portion of the judiciary. So do 18 cosponsors. But what on earth is the rest of the legislature waiting for?
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Certainly not for evidence of the system’s dysfunction. Five Philadelphia judges have recently admitted or been convicted of crimes. The state’s highest court lost two justices to scandal in as many years. And one of the candidates to replace them — Kevin Dougherty, a Philadelphia Common Pleas judge and brother of electricians’ union leader John Dougherty — has already raised more than $1.5 million.
Of course, many of the people who pay for judicial elections also pay for legislative elections — and not out of generosity or civic enthusiasm in either case. So far, 183 House members have not voted for or cosponsored the merit selection bill. As long as that remains the case, they can be assumed to have cast their lot with their underwriters rather than their constituents.