Merit selection supporters trying to woo votes from competing amendment to overhaul judicial elections

Lawmakers and others have been trying to change the process for decades

  • Katie Meyer

(Harrisburg) — The state House is torn over how to update the system Pennsylvania uses to get judges onto its three highest courts.

A proposal to elect them by district seems to have an edge–but supporters of merit selection say they aim to put up a good fight.

Currently, candidates for the Commonwealth, Superior, and Supreme courts run as representatives of political parties and are chosen in statewide elections.

Lawmakers and others have been trying to change that for decades, arguing it inserts too much money and partisan influence into what should be an apolitical process.

One of the two competing overhauls this session would elect judges from small regional districts– nine for Commonwealth Court judges, 15 for the Superior Court, and seven for the Supreme.

The other would have the governor choose candidates from three large, regional districts–west, east, and central–from a list compiled by a bipartisan commission of citizens. Then the Senate would confirm or deny those candidates.

Members of the GOP-controlled House say regional elections have so far had an edge when the caucus has whipped votes.

It already passed second consideration in the House and would need one more vote before going to the Senate. Its sponsor, Lebanon County Republican Russ Diamond, said he’s hopeful it will come up as soon as next week.

But Maida Malone, with Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said her group is lobbying hard against it, arguing that regional districts would make courts too much like the legislature.

Judges might feel compelled to rule in partisan ways, she said, if they’re “being elected from small hamlets just like representatives.”

“This is not what the judiciary was intended to be and to do, and this is a true corruption of the judicial system,” she said.

Malone is working with Franklin County Representative Paul Schemel, the Republican sponsoring the merit selection bill, to win lawmakers over.

He argued that Diamond’s bill would continue “the same problems that you [have] with judicial elections currently, which is special interests and political money and political influences are going to play a significant part.”

Diamond, in turn, argues that taking judicial selection out of voters’ hands is government overreach, and said regionally-elected judges would represent “diverse opinions from the vast diversity of Pennsylvania.”

Schemel said he doesn’t believe either bill has enough votes to pass yet.

Methods of picking appellate court judges vary widely by state, but elections in which judges are affiliated with political parties are relatively uncommon, as are elections or appointments by district.

According to  the National Center for State Courts, there are 10 states in which appellate judges are tied to a district in some way.

In Tennessee, South Dakota, Oklahoma and Florida, judges are appointed from a district, but voters statewide decide whether to retain them.

Nebraska and Maryland appoint judges by district too, and also allow voters a yes-or-no retention decision based on that district.

Four states elect judges by district.

However, Mississippi and Kentucky don’t list judges by political party. Only Illinois and Louisiana do.

Both Schemel and Diamond’s bills are amendments, and would have to pass the House and Senate in two consecutive sessions before going to voters for a referendum.

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