Lawmaker proposes independent bipartisan commission to select candidates for state’s high courts, gains Republican co-sponsor

HARRISBURG, January 23, 2013 – As Pennsylvanians witness the opening of a corruption trial against a state Supreme Court justice, state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams today sought to help avoid such future spectacles by filing a judicial merit selection bill.

“As citizens, we have to have utmost confidence in our judiciary, and right now, that’s simply not the case,” said Williams, Democratic whip. “I’ve filed a merit selection bill under a Democratic governor and I’m filing this one under a Republican one. This isn’t a matter of partisanship. It’s about ensuring the integrity of the bench.”

State Sen. Richard Alloway II (R-Adams/Franklin/York) is the lead co-sponsor of the legislation, which seeks to amend the state constitution and reform how state appellate court jurists are selected.

Lower court judges – from magisterial district judges to judges on the Common Pleas Court – would continue to be elected.

Under the bill, judges serving on the Commonwealth, Superior and Supreme Courts would be appointed by the governor, who would select from a defined list of candidates generated by an independent, bipartisan commission.

The proposed 15-member Appellate Court Nominating Commission would be made up of seven public members and eight members appointed by elected officials; four picked by the governor and four by the General Assembly. All would be aged 18 or older and must come from a minimum of four different counties and be a resident of the state for at least one year prior to service, which would be a four-year term.

The nominating commission would include both attorneys and non-attorneys, and its members would represent the state’s diverse geographic and political makeup.

The commission would activate whenever an appellate court vacancy arises and would provide a list of five candidates per vacancy to the governor within 90 days. The diverse judicial candidates in the pool would be attorneys licensed to practice law in Pennsylvania who have practiced law or worked in a law-related profession for a minimum of 10 years and have a solid professional and civic reputation.

Judges so selected would stand for a public retention vote on a separate ballot with no party designation at the end of his or her term.

Creating a mechanism for forming the nominating commission – including the method of choosing its public members – will be determined later, but no member of the nominating commission could be a political or appointed officeholder –

This bill opens a lengthy but necessary dialogue on reshaping the appellate courts. Constitutional amendments require passage in both chambers twice and voted on by the general public prior to adoption.

In crafting it, Williams and Alloway consulted with Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a leading nonprofit focused on establishing an efficient, reflective and responsible judiciary. PMC also maintains a merit selection blog that offers insights and facts.

Public discovery of judicial misconduct, while infrequent, can shake a society to its core, Williams said.

The 2009 Luzerne County scandal, where judges were charged with accepting kickbacks from juvenile detention center operators in a kids-for-cash scheme, sickened the state. Now, suspended state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin stands accused of using state-paid staffers for her campaigns.

Jury selection for her trial began today in Allegheny County.

Williams has introduced some form of merit selection legislation since 2006, focusing mostly on the local level. The crisis in the state Supreme Court pushed him to switch attention to those who set policy for the lower courts.

“Most judges strive to be upright, and we know those who err are fewer in number. But their impact can be immense, for all of us,” Williams said. “Just look at the deadlock we had over voter ID and a diminished court. As we face a number of critical issues, we cannot afford for our high courts, our final arbiters of law, to succumb to forces of corruption.”

Reasonable perception of corruption can be just as damaging, particularly given that less information circulates about judicial candidates and their credentials. Merit selection would offer a way to produce as clean a bench as possible, he said.

“We cannot have a society of laws if those sworn to uphold them are seen as willing to disregard them,” Williams said. “The courts are our last stance. We can’t have people thinking the deck is stacked. That’s no way to function in a society. Lawmakers are drawn from the people, but our courts are supposed to be our gold standard.”