In the Nov. 3 election for three statewide appellate courts, Pennsylvania voters need to look beyond party labels - if only as a statement that partisan politics has no place in choosing the best judges.
Indeed, the debate swirling around the race to fill one seat on the state Supreme Court is a condemnation of the process of selecting judges by ballot rather than by merit-based appointment.
Backers of both the Republican and Democratic candidates have sought votes on the basis that the victor will determine the political balance on the seven-member court, thus playing a role in redrawing legislative districts after the 2010 census.
Such a cynical outlook is just what the state's judiciary does not need right now, given a crisis of confidence over two Luzerne County judges facing charges for jailing juveniles in a kickback scheme.
Stuck with a bad system, the best that voters can do is pick candidates likely to bring legal scholarship, judicial temperament, ethical standards, and a good work ethic.
Of the two appellate judges vying for Supreme Court, JOAN ORIE MELVIN of Pittsburgh edges out Jack A. Panella, her Easton colleague on the state Superior Court. Melvin, 53, earned the state bar's highest rating and was cited for being "genial and fair- minded" with a "solid record of performance" on the bench over a 24-year period.
Even though Melvin has a political pedigree, she brings an outsider's viewpoint characterized by her refusal to take the 2005 judicial pay raise. She's also bucking the status quo with her call for an independently appointed agency to police rogue judges. Melvin's capable and equally highly rated opponent has fewer years on the bench and a sizable, special-interest campaign war chest.
Four county judges are voters' best bets for seats on the busy Superior Court, which hears most criminal and civil appeals.
In her brief tenure as an Allegheny County judge, JUDITH F. OLSON, 52, has shown guts and creativity after a career as a litigator. The state bar gave her its highest rating, saying her "character and integrity are beyond reproach."
Her colleague ROBERT J. COLVILLE, 44, has acquired broad judicial experience in a decade on the bench. The state bar lauded Colville for his work ethic, administrative skills, and passion for improving the courts.
Another highly rated judge, ANNE E. LAZARUS, 56, was credited by the bar with "superior writing ability, knowledge . . . and exceptional judicial temperament" during an 18-year bench career in Philadelphia.
Another city judge, TERESA SARMINA, 56, was highly rated for her handling of major criminal trials, and has a varied resume as a former prosecutor, congressional aide, and social worker.