By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
This story was updated on 1/24/13 to correct that Sen. Richard Alloway is vice chairman of the Law and Justice Committee.
HARRISBURG – As one state Supreme Court justice prepares to face a jury on corruption charges, lawmakers are looking for a way to end judicial elections.
Legislators want to scrap Pennsylvania’s practice of electing judges to the state’s highest courts because they say the system opens the door to corruption and conflicts of interest stemming from the millions of dollars in campaign contributions for those elections.
Instead, a newly created commission would identify a short list of judicial candidates to fill vacancies in the state Supreme Court, Superior Court and Commonwealth Court. The governor would chose from that list.
Lower court judges in municipal courts and the state Court of Common Pleas would continue to be elected. All judges would continue to face retention votes after 10 years on the bench.
State Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, the lead sponsor of the bill, said the merit selection proposal was intended to ensure the integrity of the bench.
“As citizens, we have to have utmost confidence in our judiciary, and right now, that’s simply not the case,” Williams said.
The proposed commission would include 15 members. Four would be appointed by the governor, four would be appointed by the General Assembly and the remaining seven would be members of the public, but the bill is silent on how they would be selected.
Williams said the mechanism for selecting commission members would be determined later, but political officeholders and staffers would be barred from serving.
State Sen. Richard Alloway, R-Franklin, vice chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, is also backing the proposal.
Pennsylvania is one of only eight states with judicial elections, according to the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, a judicial research center housed at the University of Denver.
Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a statewide nonpartisan judicial reform organization, said judges in Pennsylvania frequently take political contributions from attorneys and interest groups who will later appear before them in court, complicating the judicial process.
“Judges are supposed to make decisions based on the facts and the law, not based on how their campaign supporters want them to rule,” Marks said. “They criss-cross the state raising tons of money, all while promising to be unbiased when they are elected.”
The bill’s introduction is ironically timely.
Jury selection began in Allegheny Count on Wednesday in the trial of suspended state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin. She is charged with seven counts related to the alleged use of public resources during her 2009 campaign that ended with her election to the state’s highest court.
Her sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, R-Allegheny, was found guilty in March on 14 criminal counts ranging from forgery to conflict of interest related to the same incidents. She was given a sentence of two years to ten years in state prison.
Orie Melvin was suspended from the state Supreme Court in June, one day after she was charged.
Marks said a merit selection process would eliminate the incentive for future judicial candidates to dip into public funds or take advantage of well-connected family members to help boost election prospects.
The bill seeks to amend the state constitution to implement the new merit selection process.
Amending the constitution is a lengthy process that requires the same legislation to be passed by the House and Senate in consecutive legislative session. It must then be approved by a majority of voters in a statewide referendum.
The earliest this proposal could go to the voters would be in May 2015.
Williams said the bill would begin “a lengthy but necessary dialogue” on reforming Pennsylvania’s courts, particularly in light of recent events.
Contact Eric Boehm at Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter.