Pennsylvania is one of only six states where partisan elections are used to select judges, and powerful interests have opposed attempts to replace judicial elections with merit-based appointments.
So no one was predicting a significant change in Pennsylvania as a result of yesterday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that elected judges must step aside from cases involving major campaign contributors.
"It's not likely to have a widespread effect," said Chuck Ardo, spokesman for Gov. Rendell, calling the focus of the high court's ruling "an isolated case."
The Supreme Court's decision dealt with a West Virginia case in which a judge refused to recuse himself from a case even though one of the parties before him had spent $3 million to help elect him.
The high court ruled that "significant" campaign contributions created a "serious risk of actual bias."
What constitutes "significant," however, was not defined.
"This may well be the first step toward merit selection" in Pennsylvania, said Sayde J. Ladov, chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association.
Ardo said the ruling "certainly gives some impetus to the merit selection of judges," which Rendell supports for appellate jurists.
Legislation was introduced in the Pennsylvania House last week to switch to merit-based appointments for appellate judges. Similar legislation is pending in the Senate.
Advocates for merit selection hope their cause will be bolstered by the Supreme Court's ruling.
"We are heartened that the court recognized that expensive judicial elections and the fund-raising and contributions they require can create serious perception and confidence problems for the public," said Lynn A. Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.
"We believe the best solution is to get judges out of the fund-raising business altogether and end the poisonous campaign-contribution game by changing to merit selection," Marks said.
Michael J. Foley, president of the Pennsylvania Association for Justice, which represents trial lawyers, declined to comment directly on the ruling because he had not read it, but he reiterated his opposition to merit selection.
"I think the people are entitled to vote for the people who run their government," Foley said.
Foley noted that Pennsylvania voters had decided against merit selection in the late 1960s, and said that he believed they would vote the same now.
He said judicial elections gave voters a screening process through campaigns, while merit selection was "purely an insider's game."