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John Baer: Time to end electing judges

YO, VOTERS, y'all enjoy casting ballots yesterday in those hotly contested primary races for state appellate courts? What? You don't know anything about appellate courts or anyone running for those seats?

YO, VOTERS, y'all enjoy casting ballots yesterday in those hotly contested primary races for state appellate courts?

What? You don't know anything about appellate courts or anyone running for those seats?

OK, but you must have heard about the local judges in Wilkes-Barre busted for taking bribes in exchange for putting kids in juvey jails. Or the state judge from Erie just sentenced to prison for insurance fraud. Or the Philly judge who, while running for a state court last election, also was running a real-estate business out of his chambers. All elected by the voters.

It has been long my contention that electing judges, especially statewide, is a joke. It strikes me even more so today. Pennsylvanians are filling six appellate judgeships this year. Yesterday's ballot carried 22 candidates. I mean, come on.

First of all, it's a crapshoot. Nobody's heard of these people. So ballot position, geography (the ballot lists where candidates are from) and gender usually determine outcome. In other words, luck.

Pittsburgh lawyer Barbara Ernsberger, for example, twice lost races for Allegheny County judge and is the only statewide candidate "not recommended" by the state bar's Judicial Evaluation Commission. I figured she must have murdered someone since the bar's pretty generous in its recommendations. Turns out the commission said she lacks experience and judicial temperament.

But she's a female from western Pennsylvania, two advantages in judicial races, and second on a ballot of six Democrats vying for two Commonwealth Court seats. History says she has a good chance and late last night, with 79.2 percent of the statewide vote counted, she was running first in the field of six.

Also, judicial races are unseemly. Campaigns are funded by lawyers who later appear before the judges they help elect. So even apart from the pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey (or elephant) aspect of the process, electing judges begs for politics to influence justice.

Just the possibility that it will is enough to diminish faith in our courts.

The vast majority of states get this. Only five others hold partisan statewide judicial elections - Alabama, Illinois, Louisiana, Texas and West Virginia - according to Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a Philly-based group working for merit selection here.

The American Bar Association backs merit selection.

The Pennsylvania Bar Association has since 1949.

The American Judicature Society, an independent, nonpartisan group, calls merit selection its "core issue" and is in the middle of a two-year project to preserve merit selection in states that have it and expand it to states that don't.

The society's research director, Malia Reddick, says data compiled by the society show that merit selection provides a more diverse bench in terms of women and minority than election does.

My guess is that research under way also will show elective states have higher incidences of judicial disciplinary action than merit states.

And it's no stretch to imagine a follow-the-money study showing a relationship between law firms' political contributions to appellate judges and instances of those firms' cases at least getting heard by appellate courts.

The federal judicial system based on appointment seems to work smoothly, and, if truth be told, political parties at the state level hate trying to drum up interest in judicial campaigns.

This is probably why Gov. Rendell and the state Democratic Party back merit selection and why Republican state chairman Rob Gleason called for merit selection of state judges after the last judicial elections.

"I really think it needs to be done," Gleason told me yesterday. "You get what? Twenty percent of the party [to vote]? . . . What do the people even know about the candidates? There are no issues and you can't discuss anything."

So why do we remain among just a few of states stuck with a judicial-selection process so clearly inferior? Easy. Any change has to come from your Legislature. Are you shaking your head? *

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