As former governors of Pennsylvania, we care about choosing judges based on their experience and qualifications, not their political connections and fundraising skills. Merit selection is supported by a broad coalition of Pennsylvania businesses, civic and law-related organizations and religious groups.
Despite the premise of the April 1 editorial “Judges, Politics and George Soros,” merit selection isn’t about selecting liberal or conservative judges. That is why, in the spirit of bipartisanship, we sent a letter to the Pennsylvania legislature urging it to move forward on merit selection. This effort was coordinated by Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a nonpartisan, nonprofit court-reform organization that does not receive funding from George Soros.
The editorial fundamentally mischaracterizes Pennsylvania’s merit-selection proposal. Merit selection is a hybrid appointive-elective system that stops the toxic flow of money from litigants and law firms that often appear in state court. A bipartisan citizens’ nominating commission of lawyers and non-lawyers would screen candidates and recommend a short list of the most qualified to the governor. The governor would nominate someone from the list for Senate confirmation. The judge would stand for retention in periodic elections thereafter.
Critics mistakenly argue that merit selection removes the public from the process of selecting judges. But voters elect the lawmakers who select the nominating commission. They may submit comments to the commission, the governor and the Senate during confirmation hearings. They have the ultimate vote as to whether a judge stays on the bench. And local judges would still be elected.
Enacting merit selection requires an amendment to Pennsylvania’s Constitution. That means the legislation must pass in two legislative sessions and be approved by the voters in a referendum. Ninety-three percent of Pennsylvanians want to vote on whether to change the system of judicial elections that depends on campaign contributions from potential litigants and lucky ballot position. As former elected governors, we believe that the voters should have the opportunity to make that decision.
Edward G. Rendell
Thomas J. Ridge
Here in Ohio, where the voters rejected merit selection 2-1 in 1987, we have rarely had a problem with the quality of judicial appointments. But we have a major problem with judicial elections in that one-third to one-half of voters do not vote in judicial races. Candidates will win simply on the strength of their electable names and number of television ads, and over 30% of judicial races are unopposed because of the money required to run.
We are therefore considering implementing the retention ballot for all judicial elections and eliminating contests between candidates to take political fundraising out of the process, and give voters a choice to retain or not retain an incumbent judge. This is more democratic than only having the right to vote for an incumbent running without opposition or not to vote at all. It recognizes the reality that judicial elections are different from others in that the average voter has few means of evaluating performance, and therefore too frequently chooses not to vote.
Richard D. Rogovin
A version of this article appeared April 8, 2013, on page A18 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Why We Support Merit Selection of Judges in Our State.