What do former Republican Governors Mark Schweiker, Tom Ridge, and Dick Thornburgh have in common with current Democrat Governor Ed Rendell? Rendell and the Ghosts of Governor’s Past have joined together to promote a whale of a bad idea: eliminating the ability of Pennsylvania voters to choose their judges.
The four joined forces earlier this month to announce their cooperative scheme to enhance the powers of political insiders at the expense of the democratic process. Rendell declared that Pennsylvania’s structure of electing judges is "a godawful system and it ought to be changed." That’s ironic since many Keystone Staters feel similarly about the Rendell governorship.
If passed, the Fab Four’s proposal would provide for the appointment of members of the Supreme, Superior, and Commonwealth Courts. Instead of being elected in free and fair elections, these judges would be chosen by a "merit" selection panel loaded with Harrisburg insiders and confirmed by the very legislators who have contributed to the historically low levels of trust among the citizenry in their state government.
The good news is that the public remains the plan’s most significant roadblock. Also, Rendell’s approval numbers are low enough to limit the extent to which he can use the bully pulpit of the Governor’s Office to help his cause. Poll after poll confirms that the people do not want their voice in electing judges to be taken away and given to the Harrisburg fat cats.
• A poll commissioned by Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts (PMC)—a George Soros front group pushing the elimination of voter choice—found that 75 percent of Pennsylvanians feel that "merit" selection could make the judiciary more political than it is today. Almost 70 percent believe that judicial selection takes power from the public and places it in the hands of "politicians and trial lawyers."
• A polling company/Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy poll in September 2009 found that 72 percent of Pennsylvanians favored continuing to elect their Supreme Court judges while just 21 percent would support a nominating commission.
• An Annenberg Public Policy Center poll conducted nationally in 2006 found that voters across the nation favored election over selection, as "nearly 65 percent of Americans want to elect those who sit on the bench," according to their results.
The numbers tell the tale. Not only do Pennsylvanians wish to retain their power in choosing who sits on the bench, but voters nationwide favor electing their jurists. The call to alter the state constitution in favor of less voter choice is simply unwanted, unwarranted, and unnecessary. A lust for power is the reason why the trial lawyers comprising PMC and the Bar Association, power brokers like Rendell, and well-heeled special interests are so gung-ho to sink their teeth into the judicial selection system.
Rather than constricting voter choices, perhaps the more logical approach would be to expand the franchise, allowing for more voters to choose among judicial candidates while also making the process less partisan. This can be done in a few ways.
First, independent voters should be permitted to participate in all judicial primary elections since the judiciary is supposedly non-partisan. Second, appellate court candidates should cross-file like candidates running for Common Pleas Court or for Magisterial District Judge. Third, if the cross-filing plan isn’t palatable, let’s make our judicial races "nonpartisan" by requiring judicial candidates to run in primaries without party labels in contests open to all registered voters. These three simple proposals would broaden the base of participation in these low-profile contests rather than restricting voter choice.
In 2003 I worked tirelessly to help my friend Judge John Driscoll’s campaign for the Superior Court. I traveled with the candidate, served as a surrogate, helped organize press appearances and meet and greet events, and worked the polls for him in the primary and general elections. I’ve long believed that the former Westmoreland County District Attorney and current Judge of the Court of Common Pleas was the best candidate to ever seek an appellate judgeship in Pennsylvania.
John Driscoll lost the November election to Susan Gantman by just 28 votes statewide in the closest race in Pennsylvania history. I was crushed by the loss of such a superb candidate and by the slim margin of defeat. However, my confidence in the judicial election system was strengthened rather than diluted because I knew that the electoral process at least afforded a great jurist like Driscoll the opportunity to run, whereas a person of his honesty and integrity may never have been considered in a "merit" selection system favoring political insiders, wealthy donors or rainmakers, and the favorite sons of the politically elite class.
The big wigs and moneyed interests are lining up to rob the people of their voice in determining those who may one day sit in judgment of us, our families, or our rights. All good, patriotic citizens ought to vociferously oppose this effort to allow the Harrisburg Gang who can’t even complete a budget on time to dictate who will sit on the bench. If the Governor(s), PMA, and the Bar are looking for a fight, the people of Pennsylvania will prove that they are capable of going toe-to-toe with them in defense of freedom and the right to vote.
Nathan Shrader is a Republican Committeeperson in Philadelphia. He is also a PhD student in Temple University’s Department of Political Science. He can be reached at [email protected]