HARRISBURG - Despite a looming budget crisis, Gov. Rendell on Wednesday urged the legislature to take time to consider and pass legislation allowing voters to decide whether to adopt a so-called "merit selection" system for appointing Pennsylvania's top judges instead of electing them.
Rendell, who has favored such a move for more than three decades, added an impressive bipartisan gloss to his latest pitch: at his side, in person or by telephone, were three former governors, all Republicans.
Appearing with him were former Gov. Mark Schweiker and a collage of legal, business, and good-government groups. All said the current system of electing Supreme, Superior, and Commonwealth Court judges had led to the influx of big money in judicial races and eroded public confidence in the courts.
"It's a god-awful system that ought to be changed," Rendell told reporters at a Capitol news conference. "We can't wait. The stakes are too high."
The governor and others argued Wednesday that switching to merit-based appointments would remove campaign money from the process and dispel perceptions that judges give campaign donors an edge in court.
They also contended that with "merit selection," factors such as name recognition and a good position on the ballot would no longer determine who served on appellate courts.
"It gets us away from the notion that this is just one more political office to be run for, and paid for, and treated by the voters as a beauty contest," said former Gov. Dick Thornburgh, who with former Gov. Tom Ridge spoke at Wednesday's news conference by telephone.
Not everyone agrees. Defenders of judicial elections have typically included unions, trial lawyers, and some top legislative and political party leaders. That helps explain why, despite efforts over several decades to move to an appointment system, nothing has happened.
Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), for one, said Wednesday that he did not believe voters should be denied a direct say: "Pennsylvanians now enjoy the right to elect their judges, and that right should not be taken away."
The governor released a poll conducted recently for Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a group that supports merit selection. In that poll, 63 percent of those surveyed supported replacing the current system of electing judges, and 93 percent favored putting the issue to a statewide vote.
"Let the people decide," said Lynn Marks, the group's executive director.
Even if all the planets were to align in favor of merit selection, switching would take a few years. It would require a constitutional amendment, under which a bill must pass both chambers for two consecutive legislative sessions and then be approved by voters.
Under the plan championed by Rendell, Marks, and others, a 14-member nonpartisan panel would screen candidates for the three appellate courts and send names to the governor, who would then formally nominate people for the job. If confirmed, judges would face nonpartisan election after four years, and a yes-no retention vote 10 years later.
Rendell said he favored allowing counties to have referendums on whether they, too, should adopt such a system for picking local judges. But he and others said they were focusing on appellate courts since those races attracted more special-interest money and tended to produce a less diverse bench.