Time to change the rules
As a criminal trial began Wednesday for suspended Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, there was no better time for the introduction of a proposed controversial amendment to eliminate the underlying motivation for her alleged crime.
Sen. Anthony Williams, a Philadelphia Democrat, and Sen. Richard Alloway II, an Adams County Republican, introduced the measure to eliminate the election of appellate court judges and replace it with gubernatorial appointment.
Justice Orie Melvin is accused of misusing her publicly paid staff when she was a Superior Court judge, in 2003 and 2009, as she pursued election to the Supreme Court. She won in 2009 after the most expensive judicial campaign in Pennsylvania history. Her sister and chief of staff, Janine Orie, also is charged. A third sister, former Sen. Jane Orie, is in state prison for misusing her Senate staff for political purposes. She was charged with but acquitted of using her staff to further the candidacies of Justice Orie Melvin.
Regardless of the trial's outcome, the case illustrates the problems that arise from forcing appellate judges, who are required to be apolitical, to be politicians to reach office.
Even without criminal charges, the 2009 race was a minefield of conflicting interests. The key issue was whether Democrats or Republicans would hold the majority on the seven-member state Supreme Court, which was expected to determine the legality of legislative redistricting following the 2010 census and, therefore, the prospects for both parties control of the legislative branch of the state government. The race was funded mostly by narrow interest groups on both sides with dogs in that political hunt.
Beyond that sorry method for selecting one of the state's most powerful judges, there are other inherent problems with electing judges on statewide ballots. Because people typically don't know much about the actual candidates, they vote on factors such as ballot position, ethnicity and geography - hardly the way to find qualified judges.
No system is perfect and that in the proposed amendment cannot eliminate all political considerations. But it would mitigate politics and elevate true qualifications as the means to be considered for seats on the Commonwealth, Superior and Supreme courts.
A nominating commission would recommend candidates to the governor, who would make appointments that would have to be confirmed by the Senate. The new judge would serve a four-year term, stand for a retention election and then face retention every 10 years.
The amendment would have to be approved by two consecutive sessions of the Legislature and then by voters in a statewide referendum.
It doesn't promise a perfect method, just a better one. Lawmakers should approve it.