House panel advances changes in Pennsylvania judge elections
Montgomery County Judge Steven O’Neill walks back to courtroom C, during a break, at the Montgomery County Courthouse, Wednesday, April 4, 2018, in Norristown, Pa. (AP Photo/Corey Perrine, Pool)
(Harrisburg) — A state House committee on Tuesday advanced Republican proposals to change how justices and judges are selected on Pennsylvania’s three appellate courts, imposing merit selection and regional districts.
The Judiciary Committee voted for two proposals that would amend the state constitution to select judges from different parts of the state, as opposed to the current system of statewide elections.
Both proposals passed on largely party-line votes, with majority Republicans in support, although some GOP supporters said they hoped the bills would be changed before a final vote.
“I would be shocked if there wasn’t a robust amendment process on the floor,” said Judiciary Chairman Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin.
Rep. Tim Briggs of Montgomery County, the ranking Democrat, pushed the committee to hold hearings on the constitutional amendments but was voted down.
One proposal would generate candidates for three legislatively drawn regions from an appointed commission. The governor would nominate from the commission’s list, subject to Senate confirmation. After four years on the bench, they would have to run for retention.
The bill requires the governor and General Assembly to choose commission members from both major parties and different counties, and to split membership between lawyers and nonlawyers. State workers, elected or appointed officials and political party officials would not be eligible.
The other proposal would elect Supreme, Superior and Commonwealth Court judges from districts the General Assembly would draw, guaranteeing geographic diversity. The judges and justices would have to live in their district for at least a year before they are elected or appointed.
The sponsor, Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, wants to divide the state by the current number of judges — seven for the Supreme Court, 15 for Superior Court and nine for Commonwealth Court. Diamond said his own research indicates 53 of 96 seats in statewide judicial races over 50 years have been won by candidates from Philadelphia and Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh.
Voters often participate in judicial elections with limited information about the candidates, perhaps limited to the name, party and county of residence listed on the ballot. Candidates from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, traditionally Democratic strongholds, tend to do well. All of Diamond’s co-sponsors are Republicans.
Democrats were unenthusiastic about regional judicial elections.
“A regional preference for judge is arbitrary at best, political at worst,” Rep. Michael Zabel, D-Delaware, said.
Diamond’s bill would leave it up to state lawmakers to draw up the district boundaries, although it specifies the districts should be close to identical in population and be composed and contiguous. The new district map would minimize the number of cities, counties, boroughs, townships and wards that are split.
Neither proposal would end elections for magisterial district judges and common pleas court judges.
A committee staffer told members it was unclear what will happen if the Legislature were to somehow pass both bills, which seek to amend the same part of the state constitution.