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DN Editorial: Justice Done

McCaffery's gone, but special interests still rule until merit selection is made law.

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PORN-SHARING Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery put the bench - and the rest of us - out of its misery by retiring yesterday.

His action forestalls what could have been a drawn-out drama - one that would have added more clowns and elephants to the circus that came to town when the revelations of his obscene emails came to light earlier this month.

Can we please stop electing judges now?

For the past few years we have been forced to watch a parade of poster children for merit selection of judges. Each instance has outdone the previous for bringing shame and scandal to the bench - the one place that should be free of both.

In just the past six years, the Pennsylvania courts have been rocked with gut-punching scandals, starting with judges in Luzerne County selling justice for cash, in the process harming thousands of kids who appeared before them.

Then, Justice Jane Orie Melvin resigned after being nailed for corruption. And now McCaffery, who was caught sending porn via email to his cronies around the state. That's not even counting a jaw-dropping series of scandals in Philadelphia Traffic Court.

The merit selection of judges is a process whereby a bipartisan commission would put forth qualified candidates for appellate courts, from which the governor would elect. Selections would be subject to senate confirmation.

The key word is "qualified."

We don't buy the arguments of special interests that have so far successfully fought this effort. They say that voters want a choice, that merit selection would be "elitist" and anti-democratic.

But the judicial branch of government is different from the other two. Judges make critical rulings that can affect many, and justice itself demands a higher standard of ethics and behavior.

Even if a candidate starts out able to adhere to those standards - to promise fairness and impartiality - it's hard to see how the money and process required to get elected doesn't corrode those standards.

And given the amount of money now at play in such elections, there's a lot of corrosion going on.

A recent study pointed to Pennsylvania as one of the biggest-spending states for judicial elections. It's telling that Orie Melvin lost her seat on the bench because she ran afoul of campaign rules, using state employees and equipment in her judicial campaigns.

So, why are we still debating this? A bill that would set the stage for merit selection - the first requirement is a constitutional amendment that would be subject to public vote - sits in judicial committee in the House. When it has come close to being voted out of committee, special-interest groups have successfully pushed back. And so it remains in limbo.

The idea that "special interests" have such power in the way judges make it to the bench should give us all pause.

In fact, it makes the obscenity of McCaffery's porn emails pale in comparison.