Merit Selection

Should Judges be Elected? PA House Judiciary Public Hearing on Merit Selection

On March 1, I attended the PA House Judiciary Public Hearing on merit selection on behalf of the Philadelphia Democratic Progressive Caucus. This is something I would never have squeezed into my schedule if I were not retired. Merit selection (an appointive system of choosing judges) is not one of those hot button issues that grab the attention of the public. I probably would not have taken any interest in this issue were it not for my almost three decades as a Democratic committeeperson—a job I enjoy EXCEPT for the task of recommending judicial candidates to my neighbors. It is extraordinarily difficult to get reliable information about judicial candidates and I’m uncomfortable making endorsements when I don’t feel I can personally vouch for these candidates.

Last January, Philadelphia Democratic Progressive Caucus Chair Gloria Gilman organized a meeting of a group of civic/advocacy organizations with representatives of the Philadelphia Bar Association to express our dismay at their recommendation of recently elected Common Pleas Judge Thomas Nocella, who has a well-documented history of ethics violations and other dubious practices. The officers of the Bar assured us they were making changes to their process which should prevent another such occurrence. But given the serious problems with our system of electing judges, an improvement in the Bar Association’s internal process for recommending judicial candidates is not enough.

Bad, Bad, Bad Bill on Appointing Judges

There is an article in the Daily News today about a bill that Vince Fumo and Tony Williams are pushing to end Philly's judicial elections. This is a topic we have covered extensively at YPP, including our YPP/City Paper project, which lead to this article.

Pre-election, I believed that we needed to get rid of judicial elections in the City. Post-election, I feel even stronger about it. The system is, in my opinion, currently so broken, that we either need a good merit selection process, or a radically different way of electing judges (like public funding, with ward leaders not allowed to accept payments, etc). What became very clear to me after May, was not just that we have sold our offices to the highest bidders (Ceisler, Dubow and Erdos), but that the party uses the sale of judicial offices as the way in which it funds its street machine. The amount of money that was on the the street in the 8th district, as an example, was stunning. Funnelled through the Dwight Evans machine, Donna Miller paid for her election day army with judicial donations. (And some other direct ones to her that seemed to be blatantly illegal, but that is a story for another time.)

That said, the proposal that Fumo and Williams put together absolutely stinks:

His proposed 19-member commission would include four appointees of the governor, three from the Philadelphia Bar Association, three each from the city's Republican and Democratic party chairmen, four from party leaders in the state Senate, and one each from the district attorney and public defender's offices.

First, the whole point of getting rid of this system is to get the proposal out of the hands of the party machines, right, so that we get some better (and maybe less politically connected) judges? And, how in the world does this proposal address that?

Lets assume that, like many years in Pennsylvania, we have a GOP Governor. He gets 4 appointments. Then, for some reason, the GOP party chair, known to maybe 1 percent of Philadelphia, gets three appointments. Then, the GOP in Harrisburg gets another two. So, right off of the bat, we could potentially have 9! GOP appointments, in a City that is overwhelmingly Democratic. Does that make sense?

But, beyond that actual breakdown of the Republican-Democratic lines, again, why would we make 14 out of 19 seats 100 percent political (and because the power is in the hands of party chairs, basically untouchable and more machine oriented than ever)? How in the world will that help?

What about a distinctly un-political field, and if legislators did not like it, they could scrap it?

So, lets start again: 19 Members... How about this: 3 people from the bar. 2 from the DA. 2 from the Defender. 2 from CLS. 2 from the Mayor. 1 from the President of City Council. 1 each from Temple and Penn Law Schools. 1 from each party in Harrisburg. And then three from a rotating number of community groups.

The Governor gets to actually pick the people the panel recommends, so, he does not need appointments himself.

Anyway, you get the point: Why, if we are trying to de-hack the judicial election system, would we want a system that does nothing except further entrench it?

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