After years of scandals on Pennsylvania’s highest court, southern Lancaster County Rep. Bryan Cutler is once again pushing to take politics — and the money that comes with it — out of the selection of statewide judges.
The Peach Bottom Republican is proposing an amendment to Pennsylvania’s constitution that would eliminate voters’ ability to initially select judges for the state’s appellate courts.
Instead, nominees for Supreme, Superior and Commonwealth court judgeships would be recommended by an independent panel, selected by the governor and approved by the Senate.
In the hybrid appointment-election system, voters would cast ballots on whether to retain the judges after an initial four-year term, and then every 10 years after that.
The measure is intended to reform what Cutler says is “inherently a political process” that results in appellate judges getting elected less on experience and qualifications and more on ballot position, fundraising, voter turnout, geography and name identification.
In the May 16 primary, some of those factors may have contributed to the unusually strong showing of Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman in the race for Superior Court, analysts speculated.
Stedman, the only non-judge who sought a GOP nomination for the state’s second-highest appellate court, won nearly 58,000 more votes than his next-closest competitor.
While they did not question Stedman’s qualifications, some political observers said he may have received an extra boost from several factors, including name recognition and his more public profile in a heavily Republican area of the state.
Taking politics out
Under the legislation, House Bill 111, a 13-member nominating panel would consist of five gubernatorial appointees and eight appointed by the Legislature — with restrictions on the number of lawyers and the number of members from the same county and party.
Prohibited from serving on the panel would be elected or appointed officials, employees of the Commonwealth and political party officials.
When there is a judicial opening, the panel would give the governor a list of five nominees from which to choose. At least 10 of the panel’s 13 members would have to approve of the list, and the Senate would have to confirm the governor’s final selection.
This is Cutler’s fifth time pushing the “merit selection” idea in Harrisburg in as many sessions, and it’s one that was previously heralded by Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell and Republican Gov. Tom Ridge.
In recent months, Cutler’s bill was voted out of committee for only the second time and may soon be scheduled for a vote in the full House.
Pennsylvanians For Modern Courts, an advocacy group that has long promoted merit-election, has said it’s the “judicial selection system that best ensures that qualified individuals will reach the bench without the problematic influence of money on the selection process.”
Cutler and his co-sponsor, Montgomery County Democratic Rep. Madeleine Dean, said in a meeting with LNP’s editorial board this week that some of the new support for the idea has come because of the string of Supreme Court scandals that rocked the commonwealth in recent years.
Dean said it made all elected officials “feel and look lousy” when one justice was convicted of using public money for campaign purposes and two others were caught up in a pornographic email controversy.
Cutler said he’s “not naive” — he doesn’t think the bill would completely remove politics from the process.
But it will get rid of “a lot of the outsider, dark money that currently influences our judicial process,” he said, referencing the 2015 state Supreme Court race that was the most expensive in history.
Dean added, “To drain away the dollars, dark and bright, from the appellate judicial process I think will be very powerful for Pennsylvania.”
Implementing the constitutional change would require the bill to be passed by the Legislature in two consecutive sessions and then by voters in a referendum.