Of the Legal Staff
A bill that would give Pennsylvania voters the opportunity to decide whether to amend the state constitutional process for electing appellate court judges has a better chance of advancing than it has in the past, former Governor Ed Rendell said Monday. There is a better chance, he said in a conference call with reporters, because Rendell and three other former governors have come out in favor of the legislation and because Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin’s political corruption conviction has again pointed out the dangers of having judicial candidates campaign for office.
Rendell, a former Democratic governor; Tom Ridge, a former Republican governor; Dick Thornburgh, a former Republican governor; and George Leader, a former Democratic governor, wrote a letter to every member of the General Assembly in favor of a proposed bill that would set up a bipartisan commission that would select five candidates for every appellate-court vacancy to create a shortlist from which the governor would have to make an appointment. All those appointees would be subject to retention elections by voters, and trial-court judges would still be elected directly. The bill would have to be passed by the General Assembly two times before going to a referendum before voters.
Some of the problems with electing judges are that there are great amounts of money raised in appellate-court races, raising the possibility of “potential deference owed to donors,” Thornburgh said.
The genius of the framers of American government was that the judiciary was to be a body independent of people’s opinions, Ridge said. “It’s about … experience and temperament and the rule of law and upholding the constitution and not public opinion,” Ridge said.
Thornburgh cited a quote by Woodrow Wilson that he “would rather lose in a cause that will some day win, than win in a cause that will some day lose,” to explain why he continues to push for a change in how judges are selected.
The bill was introduced in the Senate by state Senator Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, and state Senator Richard Alloway, R-Adams, and Representative Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, is circulating the bill for co-sponsors, said Lynn Marks of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.
Amaris Elliott-Engel can be contacted at 215-557-2354 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @AmarisTLI.