Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on much in Harrisburg or Washington, but there is at least one noteworthy bill in the state legislature that enjoys bipartisan support.
State Reps. Brian Sims, a Center City Democrat, and Bryan Cutler, a Lancaster County Republican, want to scrap statewide judicial elections and appoint judges on merit. They make a valid case.
Cutler said voter turnout, name identification and fundraising ability are not the right ways to determine statewide judicial seats.
Sims points out that turnout in the Nov. 5 election was below 10 percent in some counties, and only an estimated 14 to 17 percent statewide.
“It’s time to remove partisan politics and campaign contributions from selecting our judiciary and implement a merit-based system for choosing Pennsylvania’s statewide judges,” he said.
Sims pointed out that merit selection transcends party lines and geographical divides. Gov. Tom Corbett, an Allegheny County Republican, and former GOP Govs. Tom Ridge, of Erie County, and Mark Schweiker, of Bucks County, are on board.
Former Gov. Ed Rendell, a Philadelphia Democrat, has backed the issue since becoming district attorney in 1978.
Susan Carty, president of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, said merit selection leads to an impartial, independent and unencumbered judiciary.
Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, notes that it doesn’t make sense to have a totally partisan process like a judicial election to determine who wins a job that, by law, must be nonpartisan. And, she adds, attorneys and special-interest groups fund these campaigns, and they are the very people who often appear in state courts.
Merit selection would be a hybrid elective-appointive system. A bipartisan citizens’ nominating commission of lawyers and nonlawyers selected by elected officials would review applicants’ qualifications and recommend a short list to the governor for nomination. After Senate confirmation, a judge would sit for a short term before standing for a nonpartisan retention election.
Since the bill is a proposed state constitutional amendment, it must pass the legislature in two consecutive sessions and then go before the people in a public referendum. Voters, if given the chance, should overwhelmingly approve. ••