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New call for merit selection of judges

For nearly two decades, Lynn Marks has been pounding pavements from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, trying to stir support for appointing rather than electing appellate judges.

For nearly two decades, Lynn Marks has been pounding pavements from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, trying to stir support for appointing rather than electing appellate judges.

But for Marks, the head of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, there has been one challenge after another as the legislation would get so far - but never quite make it. Even the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks had an impact when Gov. Tom Ridge, who had pledged to get legislation enacted, resigned to become head of Homeland Security.

Now, after the costliest judicial race in state history last fall and amid a wave of reform in Harrisburg, supporters of so-called merit selection are cautiously optimistic that new legislation could finally get the ball rolling.

Sponsors of two similar bills in the state House and Senate are poised for a major push, starting with a news conference Tuesday, for legislation paving the way for an amendment to the state constitution. It would require the governor to nominate appellate judges from a list submitted by a special commission.

Supporters say the bipartisan legislation would diminish the role of special interests, particularly lawyers and unions, in judicial elections.

"The timing is opportune after last year's exorbitant expenses and the fact that most people still don't know who they are voting for," said Sen. Jane Earll (R., Erie), a prime sponsor of a Senate merit-selection bill set to be introduced next week.

As a reason to change the process, Earll cited the expensive TV campaign funded by a mysterious Virginia group in support of unsuccessful Supreme Court GOP candidate Maureen Lally-Green, a Superior Court judge, during last fall's campaign.

She also said selection by a diverse committee would ensure a better geographic balance on the courts. "As it is now, the big-money candidates are running out of the big cities," Earll said.

Pennsylvania is one of just six states that elect all judges, and there has long been spirited debate about whether it would be better to remove judicial candidates for appellate courts from the intense politicking common in statewide races.

The merit-selection proposal, which has the support of Gov. Rendell, would apply to Commonwealth and Superior Courts, the intermediate appellate courts, and to the Supreme Court, the state's highest. Common Pleas Court judges, elected on a county level, are not included in the legislation.

A recent survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania showed that residents of states with partisan judicial races were more cynical about courts than those in other states.

The survey also turned up this fact: While only 15 percent could name the chief justice of the United States, 66 percent could name at least one American Idol judge.

The lead sponsors of a similar bill in the state House, Rep. Josh Shapiro (D., Montgomery) and Rep. David Steil (R., Bucks), are the cochairs of the Speaker's Reform Commission, tasked with bringing more openness and accountability to state government.

"We have to remove politics from the selection of judges as best we can and give the public the confidence that judicial decisions will be made solely on the merits of the issue and not potentially based on the political consideration," said Shapiro, who plans to hold the news conference Tuesday to unveil his bill.

House Majority Leader Rep. Bill DeWeese (D., Greene), who 20 years ago as a member of Gov. Robert P. Casey's judicial reform commission was a staunch opponent of merit selection, said he was "more open to it now."

"Modern-day elections are becoming prohibitively expensive for the average citizen to contemplate," said DeWeese, whose support is critical to the bill's passage in the House.

Senate Republicans, however, were not enthusiastic.

"People have the right to vote for judges now, and I don't think we should take that away," said Erik Arneson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware).

Such concerns have always been a sticking point to opponents, who fear that taking voters out of the process would just lead to more backroom political dealing.

Under the legislation, the governor would be required to select someone recommended by a 14-member commission made up of four gubernatorial appointees, four General Assembly appointees, and six representatives from business, unions, civic groups and law schools. The nominee would then face Senate confirmation.

Marks, who starting working to build support for merit selection in 1990, said she was hopeful but still bracing for an uphill fight. The big challenge, she said, will be getting bills passed in two consecutive legislative sessions. Then the constitutional amendment would go before voters in a referendum.

"I'm cautiously optimistic," said Marks. Of all her organization's reform efforts, she said, "this is kind of the most challenging."