Four former Pennsylvania governors, citing the recent conviction for campaign corruption of a state Supreme Court justice, are urging state legislators to back a switch from partisan elections to a merit-based selection system for choosing appellate judges.
Republicans Dick Thornburgh and Tom Ridge, and Democrat Ed Rendell were to participate Monday in a conference call with news media on the topic, and George Leader, a Democrat, signed a letter by all four urging that legislators begin the process for a proposed constitutional amendment.
“It’s highly unusual,” Lynn Marks of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a group that advocates merit selection, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “It points to the seriousness of this [legislative effort]. And I think it’s important it’s bipartisan.” PMC is a Justice at Stake partner group.
“The conviction of a Supreme Court justice for campaign corruption is just one more example that highlights the need for reform,” the former governors’ letter said, referring to the conviction of Justice Joan Orie Melvin (see Gavel Grab). “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.” They continued:
“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.”
A spokeswoman for current Gov. Thomas Corbett, a Republican, said the governor backs merit selection for appellate judges, according to the Inquirer article.
Merit selection proposals have been debated in the Pennsylvania legislature before. Proponents are hopeful that the high-profile conviction of a top judge on campaign-related offenses will spotlight what they see as shortcomings of partisan judicial elections.
“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,” the former governors wrote. “Merit Selection also is designed to get the most qualified, fair and impartial judges onto the appellate courts.”