October 20, 2015

House Judiciary Committee Moves Bill On Merit Selection Of Judges

The House Judiciary Committee Tuesday amended and reported out House Bill 1336 (Cutler-R-Lancaster) which would replace partisan judicial elections with a merit selection system for selecting appellate court justices.
“The idea behind this legislation is that it will replace partisan judicial elections with a merit selection system,” said Rep. Ron Marsico (R-Dauphin), Majority Chair of the Committee.  “Instead of expensive elections, these judges would be appointed and allow for a less political climate in our courts.”
Merit selection is a hybrid elective-appointive system. This change would apply only to the three statewide appellate courts: Supreme, Superior and Commonwealth courts. Judges on the Court of Common Pleas, magisterial district courts, and Philadelphia Municipal Court would still be elected as they are now.
“Merit selection is a superior method for choosing our statewide appellate court judges. The integrity of our justice system demands that we select judges based on more than voter turnout, name recognition or fundraising ability,” said Rep. Bryan Cutler (R-York), prime sponsor of the bill. “We should be looking for the members of the bar with the highest qualifications, not just the best political skills.”
In a merit selection system, a bipartisan nominating commission of lawyers and nonlawyers selected by elected officials reviews applicants’ qualifications and recommends a short list to the governor for nomination.
After Senate confirmation, the judge sits for a four-year term before standing for nonpartisan retention election for a full 10-year term, and then every 10 years thereafter.
The Appellate Court Nominating Commission would consist of 13 members: five appointed by the governor from five different counties (no more than three from one party); and  eight appointed by the General Assembly (two from each of four caucus leaders, half of them lawyers and half lay people).
Commonwealth employees, elected or appointed officials, and political party officials would be prohibited from serving. Appointing authorities would consider that members should reflect the geographic, gender, racial and ethnic diversity of the Commonwealth.
The bill is a constitutional amendment that must be passed by two successive sessions of the General Assembly and approved by voters.
Implementing legislation with more details, as the General Assembly deems necessary or desirable, would be introduced in the future.
“The thought is that merit selection is a better way to ensure a fair, impartial and qualified judiciary, which, in turn, would boost the public’s confidence in our court system.  Merit selection focuses on qualifications: legal experience, reputation for ethical behavior, honesty, fairness and good temperament,” said Rep. Marsico.  “Appellate court judges would no longer be chosen based on their campaign fundraising abilities and wouldn’t feel beholden to special interest groups who might appear before them in court.”
The bill is now on the House Calendar for action.
Editorial: Merit Selection For Judges Best Option