To improve the integrity of the Commonwealth’s justice system, Reps. Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) and Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery) introduced House Bill 1336 that would establish a merit-based system for appointing statewide appellate judges.
“Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court is the perfect example of why we need to move to a merit-based system,” Rep. Cutler said. “We’ve heard about a pornography scandal involving two justices and a felony conviction for another justice who assured us that he was different. It’s clear that we need a better system; it’s not enough to select judges based simply on voter turn-out, name ID and fundraising ability.”
“Merit selection would allow us to choose judges based on qualifications and merit, minimizing the influences of partisan politics and campaign money,” Rep. Dean said. “Legal experience, reputation for ethical behavior, honesty, fairness and good temperament would take precedence over judges’ ballot position, campaign fundraising abilities or where they live.”
Merit selection would be a hybrid appointive-elective system. A bipartisan citizens’ nominating commission of lawyers and non-lawyers selected by elected officials would review applicants’ qualifications and recommend a short list to the governor for nomination.
After Senate confirmation, a judge sits for a four-year term before standing for a non-partisan retention election for a full 10-year term and then every 10 years thereafter.
“Changing the way we select judges is important for the integrity of the courts and is what the people of this state deserve,” former Gov. Tom Ridge said. “State lawmakers must do what is right for our judicial system. We can’t allow time to continue to slip by with a system that needs to be fixed.”
Former Gov. Ed Rendell said, “A merit selection system with citizen participation will elevate the justice system in Pennsylvania and take it out of the political and fundraising environment. I've been in favor of adopting this system since my days as district attorney of Philadelphia in 1978.”
The constitutional amendment would establish an Appellate Court Nominating Commission consisting of 13 members: five appointed by the governor (no more than three from one party and none from the same county) and eight by the General Assembly (two from each of the four caucus leaders, half lawyers and half laypeople).
Commonwealth employees, elected or appointed officials and political party officials would be prohibited from serving.
Since House Bill 1336 is a proposed state constitutional amendment, it must pass the Legislature in two consecutive sessions and then go before the people in a public referendum.
Thirty-three states and Washington, D.C., use merit selection to choose at least some of their judges.A sponsor summary is available online.