The conviction of suspended Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin on campaign corruption charges is being used as a springboard by an activist group looking to end partisan elections for judges. Melvin was found guilty of misusing state-paid staff to help run her campaign for the state’s highest court.
“You realize there is something fundamentally wrong with the way we are choosing judges, “said Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts Executive Director Lynn Marks. “After all this could only happen in a system where we elect judges.”
Marks would like to see a merit selection system used to pick new Supreme, Superior, and Commonwealth Court members. Her group supports a plan that would create a special non-partisan committee to narrow a field of qualified applicants to a short list that would be presented to the governor for selection.
After four years on the bench, the judges would then stand for an uncontested retention vote.
Judicial candidates in Pennsylvania must raise hundreds of thousands of dollars if they hope to run a successful campaign. “Most of the money comes from lawyers and special interest groups and potential litigants,” said Marks.
Marks believes this leads to “people sitting in a courtroom wondering whether their opponent or their opponent’s attorney made a large contribution to the judge.” She said that question leads to wondering if they will “get a fair shake.”
Pennsylvania’s constitution would have to be changed before merit selection could be implemented. That means a bill revamping the system would have to be passed in two consecutive state legislative sessions and then approved by the voters. Marks said she thinks the momentum built by the Orie Melvin conviction can be sustained because her polling data shows most Pennsylvanians don’t trust the current system.
Legislation moving from partisan elections to a merit system has been introduced in the Pennsylvania Senate and similar legislation is expected to be moved in the House in the coming weeks.
Marks said the change would take the money, special interests, and what she calls “randomness” out of the system. “People get elected because they have a good ballot position, that they have name recognition, that they come from a county where there happens to be a big turnout, and plain old luck,” said Marks.
Marks believes most people are not even sure for whom they voted just days after casting judicial ballots.
Pennsylvania is one of just six states according to Marks that have partisan elections for judges at all levels. The legislation pending in Harrisburg would not change the way magistrates and common please judges are elected.