Should Pennsylvania Judges Be ‘Elected’ or ‘Selected’?
Quick. Who was the last judge you voted for?
If your answer was, “How the hell should I know?” then congratulations, you are the crowd the co-sponsors of Pennsylvania House Bills 1815 and 1816 are catering to. Those bills, recently gaining steam in Harrisburg, would get rid of the current system Pennsylvania employs, in which judges are elected by the people.
Instead, they’d create what some have called a “hybrid” system: a citizen-based diverse commission of lawyers and non-lawyers which would select a list of nominees for judgeships, then hand them to the governor, who would, in turn, select the most qualified candidates.
The system we currently employ is one in which judges essentially run for office like any other politician. And in so doing, as noted by the Urban League in March, “Only once has an African American been elected to Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court,” according to the group’s testimony. “Moreover, there have been no justices or appellate judges of Hispanic or Asian descent.”
As noted by Politics Daily, “candidates for high courts raised $206.4 million for campaigns from 2000 through 2009, more than double the previous decade.” And in Pennsylvania in 2007 alone, the four candidates running for the state Supreme Court raised nearly $8 million. “[C]ampaign money is often donated by lawyers and law firms that can later argue cases before the same judges they helped get elected.” We are one of six states that choose all judges in pure partisan elections. Though, generally, states are moving away from this and similar systems.
The bills, continue the Urban League, offer “opportunities for qualified candidates without access to money and from diverse backgrounds to reach the bench. No person is excluded from the process due to a lack of resources or political connections.”
The ideas in the bills are also backed by “Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts,” though opposed by groups like the American Family Association of Pennsylvania.