Govs. George Leader, Dick Thornburgh, Tom Ridge and Ed Rendell sent a letter (attached) to legislators and Gov. Tom Corbett on March 12 saying the public sees serious problems with our judicial selection system that basically requires judges to be in the campaigning and fundraising business, and they want a change.
The conviction of Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin for campaign corruption is the latest egregious example that shows the system must be reformed.
The governors – two Democrats and two Republicans – said merit selection, a hybrid appointive-elective system where appellate court judges are chosen based on qualifications, is the answer. Merit selection keeps money and politics out of our courtrooms.
"Merit selection is a bipartisan issue, and a long overdue reform," said Gov. Ed Rendell. "There are many reasons why Pennsylvania needs to make this change, but the bottom line is that if we embrace merit selection, we will get the most qualified, fair and impartial judges to serve our residents. The people understand this, which is why they overwhelmingly want the right to vote on a new way to select judges."
Gov. Tom Ridge said merit selection reform must be made a priority. “This is important for the integrity of the courts and is what the people of this state deserve. It is now up to lawmakers to do what is right for our judicial system. We can’t allow time to continue to slip by with a system that clearly needs to be fixed.”
Merit selection legislation has been introduced in the Senate (S.B. 298) by Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia) and Sen. Richard Alloway (R-Adams, Franklin, and York) and has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Legislation also soon will be introduced in the House.
Because merit selection requires changing the state Constitution, it must be passed in two consecutive legislative sessions and then go before the voters in a public referendum. Polling shows that 93 percent of Pennsylvanians want the opportunity to vote on whether to change how appellate judges are selected.
“I am heartened that legislation has already been introduced this session that would give Pennsylvanians a chance to vote on how they want to select a judge,” said Gov. Dick Thornburgh. “The way judges are now elected is purely a “beauty contest.” I look forward to the day when a constitutional amendment is passed. Our state has a real chance to exercise leadership on this issue.”
Gov. George Leader said he hopes the General Assembly moves quickly on the legislation. “All we are saying is give people a chance to vote on this very important issue,” Leader said. “Merit selection provides a fair and impartial alternative to politically charged judicial campaigns, which is something I believe we all could agree, has been going on much too long.”
Lynn A. Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts and PMCAction, statewide nonpartisan court reform organizations, applauded the governors for pushing the issue and said their involvement demonstrates its importance.
"The governors understand this is not a good system we have in place," she said. "Campaign money and geography should not be the overwhelming factors that they are in the judicial selection process."
(The letter sent by the four elected governors to legislators and Gov. Tom Corbett is below.)
March 12, 2013
Re: Constitutional Amendment on Selecting Judges
We are writing in the spirit of bipartisan leadership to urge you to take action to implement a Merit Selection process for Pennsylvania’s three statewide appellate courts.
The conviction of a Supreme Court justice for campaign corruption is just one more example that highlights the need for reform. Electing appellate court judges in divisive, expensive, partisan elections is not working for the people of Pennsylvania. This is an issue that transcends politics, party lines, and individual agendas.
Merit Selection is a hybrid appointive-elective system that stops the flow of money from lawyers, law firms, organizations and individuals who frequently appear in state courts. Merit Selection also is designed to get the most qualified, fair and impartial judges onto the appellate courts. Local judges would still be elected by voters in their districts.
Amending the constitution to change the way Pennsylvania selects appellate court judges is a decision that should not be undertaken lightly. Like all constitutional amendments, it is a topic worthy of extensive discussion and debate. We simply ask that you act to begin that process.
A positive vote in both chambers this session will represent the first hurdle in the constitutional amendment process. Both chambers would again have to pass the bills during the 2015-2016 session. If that happens, the issue would go on the ballot for a public referendum – a vote of the people.
Pennsylvanians want the opportunity to weigh in on this issue. In a poll conducted for Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts and PMCAction, 62 percent said they favor merit selection over the current election process, and 93 percent reported they deserve the chance to vote on the issue.
We understand that you often must make difficult decisions about how to vote. This decision should be an easy one – your vote here does nothing more than empower the people of Pennsylvania to decide for themselves whether there is a better way to select appellate court judges. As leaders, you owe this to them. We hope you will make it happen.
Edward G. Rendell Thomas J. Ridge
Governor, 2003-2011 Governor, 1995-2001
Dick Thornburgh George Leader
Governor, 1979-1987 Governor, 1955-1959
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