By Cherri Gregg
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Pennsylvania voters will choose three justices to take a seat on the state’s highest court today. But recent scandals plaguing the court and attack ads on the campaign trail– it begs the question — are elections the best way to select state Supreme Court judges?
Pennsylvania is one of only seven states that elects judges via partisan elections at all levels of its courts.
“That’s been part of our constitution for years,” says Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts. She says the current system forces judicial candidates to campaign and raise money, which can create political ties that carry into the courtroom.
It’s for that reason and others, PMC is pushing for merit selection. But it’s a battle, in order to change the way judges are chosen, they’ll need a constitutional amendment. The legislative requirements are tough, the amendment would need to be passed in two legislative session then sent to the people for a referendum. PMC has made some headway.
“Our bill passed through the House Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support,” says Marks, noting that it could take some time to get the votes and requirements needed to change the judicial selection process.
“It makes sense for them to be chose in a different way,” she says, “it’s important to get judges out of the campaign and fundraising business.”
On the other hand.
“Voters may feel they have more direct control over who sits on their courts,” says Bob Morris, chair of the Pennsylvania Bar Association Judicial Evaluation Commission.
He says they do not have a position on whether judges should be elected, instead, their job is to educate the public on the quality of the candidates.
“Do they have the highest intellectual ability and the highest reputation for character and integrity,” notes Morris. He says the PBA recommended or highly recommended six of the seven candidates for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court based on responses to a judicial questionnaire, past opinions, interviews, references and more.
Candidate Anne Covey, was the only Supreme Court candidate on PBA’s “not recommended” list. They’ve published a summary of their findings and supporting rationale online.
“We’ve done that work,” says Morris, “for those people who don’t have time, we give it all to you in a paragraph.”
In the meantime, Morris and Marks are hoping voters understand what’s at stake. Electing three judges to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will literally change the face of the bench. Those justices will have a big impact on rules concerning redistricting, school funding, the death penalty and much more.
“They make decisions that impact every aspect of our lives,” says Marks, “its more important now than ever that judges hearing these cases are qualified and impartial.”
For more on the all of the candidates for office, go to crowdpac.com/philly.