HARRISBURG - The decades-old battle over the election of appellate judges took center stage at a state House hearing yesterday.

A month after a contentious and costly Supreme Court race and amid continuing controversy over the conduct of judges in Luzerne County, supporters of appointing - rather than electing - appellate court judges again made their case that a constitutional change is needed.

Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, called the current electoral system "broken," and said it undermines public confidence in the judiciary.

Tom Foley, a board member of the Pennsylvania Association for Justice, formerly the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association, opposes the legislation, saying a commission created to appoint judges would favor candidates from urban centers and cut the public out of the process.

One former opponent has shifted its position in recent years. The AFL-CIO, which had until 2004 rejected merit selection, said it would consider supporting appointments through a commission if the body had the right mix of public representation.

"As we've seen in the federal system, the appointment process can be very partisan," said Rick Bloomingdale, secretary treasurer of the AFL-CIO of Pennsylvania.

He said his group would not support the current legislation, which calls for lawyers to make up 50 percent of the 14-member nominating commission.

Marks contends that it's the large donations to judicial candidates from special interest groups - particularly lawyers - in the electoral system that instills the public perception of pay-to-play politics in the courthouses.

"The fact that judges may rule on cases involving campaign contributors fuels the growing public belief that campaign contributions affect judges' decisions in the courtroom," Marks said.

To change the constitution, legislation would have to be passed in two consecutive legislative sessions and then be approved by voters.

The latest push for merit selection comes after a bitter and costly (more than $3 million) contest between Republican Joan Orie Melvin and Democrat Jack Panella for a Supreme Court vacancy.

"It was horrible," Rep. Josh Shapiro (D., Montgomery), chairman of the subcommittee on courts, said of the negative ads on both sides. Judges are not allowed to solicit campaign contributions directly, and must create committees to do so. "The idea that judges have to raise funds indirectly is not the way they should be doing this," Shapiro said.

Shapiro, who sponsored the merit selection bill last session, conceded that passage of the bill would be an uphill fight. "We need new momentum," he said.

There was renewed support from the chief executive's office yesterday as Gov. Rendell reiterated his support for the legislation, saying it would ensure fairness and "remove the influence of money in our judicial elections."

Foley said the election process has increased diversity in the courts, citing the unprecedented five women elected to the state appellate courts in November.

But others believe a commission will ensure increased diversity on the appellate bench, where only one judge of color has been elected.

The merit-selection proposal would apply to Commonwealth and Superior Courts, the intermediate appellate courts, and to the Supreme Court. Common Pleas Court judges, elected on a county level, are not included in the legislation.

Under the legislation, the governor would select an individual recommended by a 14-member commission: four gubernatorial appointees, four General Assembly appointees, and six public representatives from business, unions, civic groups and law schools. The nominee would face Senate confirmation.

After four years, the judges would stand for "retention" election by voters.

Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.