For years, a dogged group of advocates has called for appointing appellate court judges in a multi-step process called merit selection, instead of holding partisan elections.
Supporters say relying on judicial elections all but ensures that judges aren’t independent arbiters of reason, but adept fundraisers.
Now repeating the chorus are four former governors – Republicans Dick Thornburgh and Tom Ridge, and Democrats George Leader and Ed Rendell – who signed their names to a letter to state legislators and Gov. Tom Corbett urging action on proposals to begin the years-long process of overhauling Pennsylvania’s method for choosing appellate court judges.
Rendell says casting a vote for judges is arbitrary for most people, who might make their picks based on a candidate’s position on the ballot.
"Voters have no idea who they’re voting for anyway," he said. "No idea, they have no clue."
Backers of merit selection say voters often can’t handle all the information they need to make an informed vote for appellate judge candidates. They say far more manageable would be a vote on whether to change the way judges are chosen.
Former Republican Governor Tom Ridge says the average voter in Pennsylvania knows judicial candidates party and the county where they live.
"And that’s it," he said. "And there’s no conceivable way that any well-intentioned citizen can make an appropriate decision based on that information alone."
Former Republican Governor Dick Thornburgh said creating a merit selection process would move Pennsylvania’s system closer to what the founding fathers envisioned by allowing some public input in both the initial recommendation of judicial candidates and nonpartisan retention elections.
"I think what you’re getting is a combination of both systems by providing a safety valve," Thornburgh said. "If a bad choice is made after four years it’s an opportunity to turn that person out of office."
Opponents of merit selection say the process would not be free of corrupting influences and would have the added downside of being less democratic.
Merit selection would involve a citizens’ commission, the governor and the state Senate. It would then subject the chosen judges to regular, nonpartisan retention elections.
Implementation would require a constitutional amendment.
A current Senate proposal would have to be passed in two consecutive legislation sessions and then clear a voter referendum.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story reported that three former Pennsylvania governors had signed a letter to legislators supporting merit selection. A fourth former governor, Democrat George Leader, also signed. The story has been updated.