Questions over judgement in Mancusco case could lead to reform

As a community of neighbors, friends and loved ones, many of us in the Manayunk area were terribly saddened and shaken over last week’s murder/suicide involving a 7-year-old girl and her father. Many are now asking how this tragedy could have been avoided.


As a state representative, I am directly asked and wrestle with the question myself: how could the system have helped Kayden Mancusco and her family? How can we avoid something like this from happening again?


An answer I’ve mulled the past few days involves other questions: do constituents understand how judges come to sit on their benches in Pennsylvania? I wonder because, especially in this case, it’s been widely panned that a judge could have done more to protect Kayden.


What level of diligence do voters exercise when deciding who is best qualified to be a judge and make life and death decisions? Do our state laws and electoral systems override merit and influence how a citizen votes? Do politics preclude more qualified candidates from the ballot, leaving voters with limited partisan options?


You could even ask, based on the very way judges make it to a bench in Pennsylvania, did we all contribute to Kayden’s brutal and untimely passing if we either did not vote or voted in such a way to elect an unqualified person to the bench?


How can we all do this better?


One fix we could make to better vet judges in Pennsylvania is found in H.B. 111, the merit selection of statewide appellate court judges, as voted out of the House Judiciary Committee in May. A full vote in the House this fall is uncertain.


Merit selection is a better way to ensure a fair, impartial and qualified judiciary. I know that H.B. 111 would not include the common pleas level of the judiciary – the level where the judge in Kayden’s situation sat. At its core though, merit selection would change focus to qualifications: legal experience, reputation for ethical behavior, honesty, fairness and good temperament.


Appellate court judges would no longer be chosen based on their ballot position, campaign fundraising abilities, or where they live. Judicial candidates would no longer be required to engage in a process that leaves them seemingly beholden to wealthy lawyers and special interest groups who might appear before them in court. Removing money from our courtrooms helps to increase public confidence in the courts.


If we can successfully pass merit selection reform at the appellate level, there is nothing to stop us from extending it to all levels of the court.