Policy changes in Pennsylvania take place mostly during the election year. Pennsylvania is looking into changing the way judges get into office. Currently, judges are elected and House Bill 1848 is seeking to enable judges to get into office using merit selection system. The introduction of this merit selection system has been introduced numerous times but has not succeeded. Changing the election of judges into office could affect Pennsylvania positively or negatively. There is spur wave of optimism regarding House Bill 1848. Amendments in constitution have always taken long time to get endorsed. Politicians, judges and the public have different opinions about the merit and election process of judges. Reforms on the judicial selection process has been faced with challenges from union groups.
State representatives Bryan Cutler and Brian Sims have worked out an amendment plan on House Bill 1848 that advocates for merit selection system of judges. These two legislators have pushed for the reforms endlessly in senate and it has not been a smooth journey. Efforts to reform the House Bill 1848 started in 1957 when a Pennsylvania plan was drawn with the aim of reducing the election expenditure. The judicial financing is drawn from lawyers through endorsements and contributions which this has resulted in conflict of interest. Bryan Cutler and Brian Sims say that reform in the judicial selection through merit selection system would ensure that only judges with excellent skills of the judiciary gets into office other than people with political skills to serve as judges. I agree with the proposed reform because they would ensure that social issues of minorities and gender get improved and the caliber of judges selected would be of high ethics.
Voter turnout during a judicial election this year was frustrating. The turnout was poor to the point that politicians got concerned. Only about one million of voters turned up for the election. Registered voters in Pennsylvania are about eight million or more. I saw that election as an eye opener to the fact that the citizens do not care about the judicial elections since they hardly have time to familiarize themselves with the judicial candidates. Pennsylvania allows a judge to serve until the age of seventy years old provided the judge gets re- elected every time he stands to vie. The vote to retain judges in Pennsylvania takes places once every ten years. The retention provision has enabled the judges to stay for a long time in the judiciary. A judge who does not get retained must have had a scandal that was overriding thus affecting votes. House Bill 1848 would affect appellate courts that are spread through Pennsylvania. These appellate courts are the Supreme courts, Superior courts and Commonwealth courts.
Judicial elections have got related to corruption during the judicial campaigns. The candidates get funds from litigants who show potential; groups with special intentions contribute funds, as well. Corruption scandals have necessitated reforms in the judiciary. For example, Judge Joan Orie Melvin got convicted due to corruption claims. Furthermore, in the early nineties, Rolf Larsen got convicted for conspiracy. In the merit selection system, if a vacancy gets created in any of the three appellate courts, a nominating commission of non-lawyers and lawyers bipartisan put the candidates under extensive screening.
I believe, judicial campaigns get influenced by contributions. Residents believe that judicial candidates with fewer contributions and most qualified do not win. Most of the residents are aware of this fact and it is alarming. I have noticed that political connections help the candidates win elections. Name recognition and prowess in fundraising are keys to the elections’ success. Experience in legal practice and fairness are qualifications that are neglected which is why elected judges do not always make best judges.
The residents of Pennsylvania have the perfect chance to ensure that our cases are heard and decided by impartial fair and qualified judges. The reforms should ensure that judges get held more accountable for their performance and professional conduct. Performance surveys should get implemented to ensure that the public gets knowledge on the weaknesses and strength that judges have. These results should get publicized to help voters make informed decisions during retention votes for judges. The surveys would also help the residents of Pennsylvania to know more about the courts and get familiar with the roles of judges. These surveys can get used as tools of self-improvement, which ensures the judges strive to improve their performance and continue learning. Court administrators would get allowed to access the surveys and educate the judiciary on weaknesses found and use other measures to curb the weaknesses and enhance excellence. During courts training sessions, ethics should get covered comprehensively. The trainings should get attended by court staff and judges of all levels. The judiciary should offer community education programs that will help the residents appreciate court’s performance. The public should also get educated on processes of the judiciary.
Challenge facing the amendments of House Bill 1848 is that judiciary fears that it would lose it independence. Debates have been held about what is important between the process of choosing judges and the independence of the judiciary. Judicial elections have always made judges feel biased towards their sponsors.
Summary of House Bill 1848
Bryan Cutler and Brian Sims proposal requires House Bill 1848 to create a 15 persons commission that would nominate people from both sides of the government. The general assembly would appoint eight people, who get chosen by a minority and majority leader to the chambers. The governor would appoint six people who must come from different counties and not more than three of them must come from one party. Also, two of the six members must be judges who got retired, and the attorney general would appoint one person, as well. The requirements for being in the nominating commission, requires members to be above eighteen years of age and be a resident of Pennsylvania for about one year before the appointment. Several people get prohibited from being in the nominating commission that is bipartisan. Family members of the general assembly, the governor and the attorney general and their staff cannot get appointed. Officers who belong to any organization or party that is political cannot get nominated. Lobbyists who are registered, as well as appointed or official who got appointed, are excluded from the nominating commission.
Bryan Cutler and Brian Sims proposal says that Members of the nominating commission would get required to recommend candidates in a short list to get used by the governor during nomination of judges. The candidates would then get confirmed by the state senate. After confirmation, the judges would get required to serve for a short term of about four years and then later stand for a retention vote by the non-partisans. It they get retained it is then that they get required to get retained after every ten years. I support this bill because it serves as an evaluation tool for the judges.
The general assembly must pass House Bill 1848 amendments at two legislative sessions consecutively. Each of the legislative sessions should run for two years. This is done to comply with guidelines laid down that require proposed amendments need to be published. The bill would then be subjected to a public referendum by voting yes/no for the citizens of Pennsylvania. However, the referendum must get timed depending on when the second passage takes place by the legislature. The referendum for House Bill could get held in March 2015 at earliest. The bill also has co-sponsors who support the change in the constitution. Pennsylvania modern courts support the amendment, the bill has also received support from the Pennsylvania Bar Association. The League of Women voters has also supported the initiative around House Bill 1848.
Challenges Facing House Bill 1848
The challenges facing House Bill 1848 have been presented in the form of myths. The first myth says that the election of judges has no difference compared to other publicly elected officials. It shows that judges should get elected the way any other public officials get elected; however in reality judges are different compared to all public officials that get elected. Judges work is to serve the citizens of Pennsylvania but not to represent them. Furthermore, judges’ role does not involve representing constituencies. Judges get sworn to practice the law and apply the facts during judgment. Their service should not be affected by personal belief or pressure due to politics. Moreover, public opinions should not affect the judges’ judgment. The legislators get elected on the promises they make to the citizens of Pennsylvania. The second myth says that campaigning for financial reforms can solve the problem facing judicial financial contributions for campaigns. However, in reality, the problem does not involve the amount of money being spent on the campaigns but, money should not get factored in the selection of judges. It is common knowledge that lawyers and law firms among other organizations contribute to the campaign funds.
Judges get required to not acknowledge who contributed funds and their quantity for their campaigns. However, they get to know and this can lead to the appearance of bias in the judicial system. Consequently, confidence in other judges can get undermined. The third myth states that the merit selection of judges would reflect how the federal judges get chosen in Pennsylvania. In reality, merit selection and the federal system of judge’s appointment are very different because the federal system requires judges to be nominated by the president. Federal judges provide their services for a lifetime. However, in merit selection system, the governor nominates a judge based on the list provided by the nominating commission (Pennsylvania for Modern Courts). Judges selected by merit system get retained after retention elections that take place periodically. The fourth myth states the merit selection system seeks to favor the appointment of lawyers from big firms in major metropolitan areas. However, in the reality, the intention of the merit system is to open up process of judicial selection to get qualified lawyers from the commonwealth and legal community with different areas. Once the elections get eliminated judges will not have the advantage of money and population of voters to get to the bench. Lawyers based in towns, rural areas and small cities would get equal chance to get chosen in big cities. The fifth myth states that, in merit selection system, people will get excluded in expressing of their opinions on who gets to sit on the appellate bench. However, merit selection will involve the public in appellate judge’s selection. The public would get represented by the members in the nominating commission. Also, members of the nominating commission get elected by officials who get accountable to the people. Thus, the public would get to decide using the retention votes by voting yes or no (Pennsylvania for Modern Courts). The sixth myth states that merit selection system of judges is political just like the system of partisan elections. However, in reality, the merit selection system seeks to reduce the influence created on judicial selection by partisan politics. The electing system currently depends on partisan politics. The proposed system of merit selection requires the nominating commission to get bipartisan. The seventh myth says that the system of partisan elections should not get discarded but should get improved. In reality, it is not possible to fix the election process. Fixing the partisan election system would not do away with raising campaign funds and providing the public with valuable information that they require to assist them in making informed decisions during elections. That is why I propose the merit selection of judges. The last myth says that voters get informed and involved in the judicial election but, in reality, people do not understand these elections, the media does not give adequate coverage for the same. In a survey carried out, voters said they felt unprepared when making crucial decisions about qualified judges. The survey also showed that the elections were not designed for the most qualified judges to get on the bench (Pennsylvania for Modern Courts).
The citizens of Pennsylvania deserve to feel that their cases are heard judges impartially. Bryan cutler and Brian Sims have worked hard on this bill and it is time that the senate gives in to its recommendations. Besides, the voters have shown less interest in judicial elections. The main aim of the amendments on House Bill 1848 is that they will aid to get judges best for the job with highest qualifications. House bill 1848 has been faced with myths about merit selection system that have created challenges in the acceptance of the bill by the public. These challenges have, however, been taken care of by Bryan Cutler and Brian Sims in the proposed amendment plan. I look forward to passing of this bill and have qualified people make an important decision for Pennsylvania.
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