Let me begin by saying I think John Baer is the finest political writer and reporter covering Pennsylvania politics today.
When I worked for the late Lieut. Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll, I came to know John as the most level-headed, inquisitive and reasonable journalist in the Harrisburg press corps.
That said, I believe Baer is incorrect in his assessment of ending the direct election of judges in Pennsylvania, noted in his May 20 column.
He addressed a number of legitimate concerns with the present system, including the tendency of voters to choose candidates based on geography and the lack of knowledge of the candidates among the electorate.
But there are several systemic issues that the legislature and the state and county political parties can do to improve the situation without moving over to a system of politically appointed judges, who instead of campaigning in front of the voters do so before politicians and the politically charged bar associations.
On the legislative side, the General Assembly ought to pass two important revisions to the election code as it relates to judicial campaigns.
First, it’s time to address the problem of geographic voting by amending the code to cease listing the home county of each candidate on the ballot. This would ensure that candidates with questionable credentials like Barbara Ernsberger – who Baer discussed in some detail – wouldn’t have the benefit of a geographic advantage by simply having "Allegheny County" printed under her name.
Second, in the spirit of reform, the legislature ought to lift the ban prohibiting independent and third-party voters from participating in judicial contests by permitting cross-filing in statewide judicial contests.
While I wouldn’t support such a measure for other races, like the U.S. Senate, state legislature, local contests or gubernatorial elections, we ought to recognize that the purpose of allowing candidates to "cross-file" on both party tickets is to permit a certain aura of bipartisanship in the judicial election process. Independent voters ought to be permitted to have their say in judicial primary contests if the public is to truly believe that the intent of the system is to produce a less-politicized judiciary.
Politically, it’s time for both parties to finally abandon the tired system of endorsements in statewide elections, starting with judicial contests.
The Democratic and Republican state committees should realize that 1950 is long gone. Voters don’t simply do what they are told by ham-fisted state party bosses.
Democratic and Republican voters showed that on Tuesday by electing a mix of endorsed and unendorsed statewide judicial hopefuls from both parties. The essential function of state parties is to elect its candidates in November, not to force the rank-and-file to do as they are told in primary contests.
Meanwhile, those in the leadership of both state parties ought to put aside the rancor that comes with divisive primary endorsement politics and end the castigation of regular party members, state committee members and ward leaders who choose to back non-endorsed candidates. Same goes for the treatment of unendorsed candidates themselves.
The candidate I backed for State Supreme Court, Judge Paul Panepinto (R-Phila.) wasn’t endorsed by the GOP state committee. As a result, the party distributed a useless slate card on Tuesday with a large slash through his name and that of Judge Cheryl Allen (R-Allegheny), the other non-endorsed candidate.
State committee officials endlessly badgered Republican committeemen like me in Westmoreland County who continued to support Panepinto despite his unendorsed status. How is this behavior likely to lead those who either supported nonendorsed candidates or were unendorsed candidates from rallying around the eventual winners in November?
LEGISLATION enabling independents to participate in judicial contests and the removal of nonsensical county labels placed under statewide (and local) judicial candidate names, coupled with both parties’ ending the outdated endorsement process while treating candidates, volunteers and committee people who decide to reject those endorsements with respect and courtesy are the best ways to improve the state’s system of choosing judges.
The so-called "merit" system, which I’ve observed closely in Virginia, primarily benefits the political class, leaving voters who must live under the decisions of the appointed judges very little recourse should a dreadful jurist be put on the bench.
Rather than following this path, Pennsylvania needs bold legislators and intelligent state party heads to get to work mending the judicial-election system. *
Nathan Shrader is a member of the Westmoreland County Republican Committee. He has worked on numerous judicial campaigns since age 13 and can be reached at [email protected]