Pa. plan for merit-based judge selections clears House Judiciary Committee

PHILADELPHIA, Oct. 22 – Legislation to replace the current process of voting for politically backed appellate judges in Pennsylvania with a merit-selection system was approved by the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, said state Rep. Pamela A. DeLissio, an early co-sponsor of the bill.

DeLissio said that House Bill 1336 is necessary to end the current practice of judicial candidates campaigning – and the need to raise campaign funds to mount such judicial races – and to provide the means to select judges based on merit.  

Under the bill, merit selection would employ a bipartisan citizens’ nominating commission of lawyers and non-lawyers selected by elected officials to review applicants’ qualifications and recommend a short list to the governor for nomination. After Senate confirmation, a judge would sit for four years and then voters would determine if the judge serves an additional 10-year term.

"Merit selection for judges has been a topic that has interested me for many years," said DeLissio, D-Montgomery/Phila. "I’ve always been fascinated on Election Day when judges are up for election, whether it’s the primary or the general election, and I – as a fairly astute voter – would scramble to try to understand what their backgrounds and credentials and qualifications are and look for the bar recommendations and to understand who I was voting for, but it’s very difficult for voters to find the time to do that much homework. I think that the discussion about merit selection is a conversation that will help our citizens understand that there will be a true vetting process that currently doesn’t exist.

"Merit selection would focus on qualifications: legal experience, reputation for ethical behavior, honesty, fairness and good temperament. Judges could no longer be chosen according to their ballot position, campaign fundraising abilities or other irrelevant factors," DeLissio said.  

"Right now, you can use that adage, ‘follow the money trail.’ That money trail is very much a part of this process, and people can have reasonable concerns that money can potentially influence the outcomes of court cases or question whether campaign money is in any way influencing the judiciary.

"Under the proposed merit selection, we would have a process that vets potential judges. This process would be open and transparent. The best part of this is that citizens will still have the opportunity to weigh in at an appropriate time – when the judge has a four year history and track record.

"So to me, it is clearly the best of both worlds, and I’m looking forward to engaging the citizens of the 194th on this issue and gain their support of the measure."

Because the bill 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.

Pennsylvania's governors from the past 18 years, from both parties, support merit selection, including the current governor.