HARRISBURG — Critics are increasingly questioning the costs spent on Pennsylvania appeals court elections and whether the positions should be elected at all.
The candidates in the races for appeals courts combined to spend $855,000 ahead of this year's primary. Two years ago, when a dozen candidates were vying to run for three seats on the Supreme Court, they spent $2.1 million before the primaries.
That raised questions about how voters make their choices, critics say.
The House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday approved a measure to ask voters whether the state Constitution should be amended to get rid of direct election of statewide judges.
Under that plan, potential judges would be vetted by a special commission. The governor would then nominate his choice of judge from that commission’s list of qualified candidates. The governor’s choice would be approved by a two-thirds majority of the state Senate. The judges would then stand for a retention election after four years on the bench. This measure would only affect statewide judges and not include county court judges.
As a constitutional amendment, the measure would need to pass in two separate legislative sessions and then be approved by the voters.
“Appellate court judges would no longer be chosen based on their ballot position, campaign fund-raising abilities or where they live,” said state Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster County, in a memo to other lawmakers.
Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a Philadelphia-based advocacy group, supports the legislation, said Maida Milone, president and CEO of the organization.
“People across the state don’t know much about the candidates,” Milone said, adding that beyond ballot position, voters often struggle to make their voting choices “based on vague recollections of last names” of candidates.
Pennsylvania is one of just six states that directly elects all its judges.
There won’t be many household names to choose from for the positions Tuesday, but voters will be selecting the majority parties' nominees for seven seats on the appeals courts.
There is no primary contest for the state’s top bench, but there are plenty of candidates for seats on the Pennsylvania Superior and Commonwealth courts.
For Supreme Court, incumbent Justice Sallie Mundy, appointed in 2016 by Gov. Tom Wolf, is unopposed for the Republican nomination. Allegheny County Judge Dwayne Woodruff, a former cornerback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, is unopposed for the Democratic nomination to challenge her.
Eighteen candidates are vying to get their parties’ nominations for six seats on the Superior and Commonwealth courts.
Milone said that while most of the candidates on the ballot have gotten high marks from the bar association, the process is still flawed. Candidates for judge feel like they have no choice but to take campaign contributions, often from attorneys who may one day have business in their courts.
“Many candidates find it distasteful,” she said.
While the current process may have its problems, not everyone is sold on the proposed solution.
The House Judiciary Committee approved the merit selection of judges legislation by a 16-10 vote. One of those who voted against it was state Rep. Tedd Nesbit, R-Mercer County.
Nesbit said that he believes that the jockeying for jobs that now takes place in direct elections would still happen under the merit-selection process. But it would be more difficult for the public to see how candidates are being approved.
“It’s impossible to take politics out of the political process,” he said.
At least under the current system, judicial candidates must file campaign finance reports listing who’s given them money, Nesbit said.
John Finnerty is the Statehouse reporter for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., parent company of The Daily Item. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.