Time to Stop Electing Pennsylvania Judges?

Recent scandals prompt debate.

Recent scandals involving the Pennsylvania judiciary have some observers wondering if it’s time to end the practice of electing the state’s top justices.

The “Porngate” scandal that resulted in Justice Seamus McCaffery’s suspension expected retirement followed the earlier conviction of Justice Joan Orie Melvin on charges she used public workers to campaign on the public’s dime.

The Post-Gazette reports:

Orie Melvin’s criminal case, in particular, was “absolutely, directly, an election-related problem,” said Matt Menendez, attorney for the Brennan Center for Justice, a policy institute based in the New York University School of Law. “Elections cost money. In order to compete, a justice has to go out and raise money.”

Both of Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial candidates, GOP Gov. Tom Corbett and Democratic challenger Tom Wolf, said in a recent debate that in light of the ugly drama unfolding on the state Supreme Court, both would support merit selection of appellate judges.

Asked again at a campaign stop in Pittsburgh this past week, Mr. Corbett said, “when it comes to merit selection of appellate judges, I’m there.”

Changing how judges get their job would require changing the state constitution, the paper reported.

Getting judges out of the electoral process would probably be a positive, simply because all those cash donations can create the appearance of a conflict of interest — and that simply opens a court up to too many opportunities to allege that the state is dealing out less-than-impartial justice. But getting judges out of elections doesn’t mean getting them out of politics, and it certainly doesn’t mean the end of problems involving the court. Seamus McCaffery may have been elected, but the “Porngate” scandal originated among the many appointed members of the Attorney General’s office. Gross behavior will find a way to thrive in any structure.