With the trial of Pennsylvania State Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin set to begin Friday, Pennsylvania State Senator Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia County) is rolling out legislation that would change the way the state's judges are chosen. Williams is calling for the end of judicial election and the beginning of a merit selection system.
Under Williams’ legislation, judges serving on the state’s Commonwealth, Superior, and Supreme Courts would be appointed by the governor based on a list of candidates presented by a special commission.
A 15-member Appellate Nominating Commission would be made up of four members chosen by the four legislative caucuses, four by the governor, and seven from originations knowledgeable of the courts, such as the Pennsylvania Bar Association.
Williams said the term for these judges would be 10 years.
“Obviously this is a new law which would be coming into effect and there would be people serving and then going off,” said Williams. “So those who go off would fill an unexpired term, but all would face elections at the end of their term.”
At the end of 10 years judges would face a “yes” or “no” public retention vote with no party designation.
Williams said the state has reached a critical point where trust in the judiciary has eroded.
He said several judicial scandals have shaken the public's trust in judges, including the 2009 Luzerne County scandal where county judges were charged with accepting kickbacks from juvenile detention operators for sending kids to their facilities.
His proposed legislation wouldn’t apply to county judges.
Williams said he was spurred to action partially by the case involving Justice Orie Melvin, who is charged with theft of services and other crimes for allegedly using her state-paid Superior Court staff to campaign on state time when Melvin unsuccessfully ran for the Supreme Court in 2003 and again when she won her seat in 2009.
“A Supreme Court Justice under indictment puts Pennsylvania on display for the rest of the nation in a non-flattering way that doesn’t go away overnight. So, when you make an impression, it sort of sticks in this country. And so, this impression of the highest jurist in our Commonwealth potentially being convicted for corrupt activities will not go away."