Gavel Grab

Pa. Supreme Court Candidate Backs Merit Selection

Jack Panella (left), a Pennsylvania high court candidate, promoted the merit selection system of electing judges this week at a press club meeting in Harrisburg.

When explaining his desire to move away from the current system of electing judges, he pointed out the need to eliminate fund raising and political bosses in the selection process. He also specifically praised Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a Justice at Stake Partner that advocates for the implementation of  merit selection.

The merit selection system involves a nominating commission comprised of citizens that submits candidates to the governor for appointment. The concept also includes nonpartisan retention elections for judges following an initial term to give the public a voice on whether officials deserve to remain in office.

For more information on Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, you can check out PMConline. You also can read more about Panella’s support for merit selection reading this commentary at “Choose Judges on Merit,” the PMC blog.

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Growing Support for Merit Selection in PA


Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a non-profit dedicated to “ensur[ing] that Pennsylvania has fair and impartial courts that serve all Pennsylvanians,” and ardent supporters of merit selection, added another group to their list of support for merit selection in Pennsylvania.

PMC announced, via their blog, Choose Judges on Merit, that the Pennsylvania Council of Churches has decided to publicly announce their support for the proposal to select Pennsylvania appellate judges by merit selection.  

This statement of support can be added to the testimony of numerous other groups and organizations like The Pennsylvania Bar Association, Common Cause Pennsylvania, and the American Judicature Society.

The Urban League of Philadelphia also has issued written testiony to the state Senate Judiciary Committee supporting merit  selection of Pennsylvania Appellate court judges.  The Urban League said a merit system would foster  greater  diversity on the bench.    

There are bills pending in the Pennsylvania legislature that would “replace the current process of electing appellate court judges with a new process that combines elements of elective and appointive systems: using a nomination process with a retention election component, and adding the unique element of an independent nominating commission to evaluate candidates and recommend the most qualified for possible nomination.”  

Check out the bills here, and the PMC blog entry here. 

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Philadelphia Inquirer Supports Merit Selection

The Philadelphia Inquirer has joined in the call to choose Pennsylvania’s appellate judges through a merit selection and retention elections. Saturday’s editorial is the latest follow-up to a hearing last week before the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee, proposing the switch from competitive elections. It concludes by saying:

“What citizens already have decided about judicial elections is that they’re confusing at best, with legal qualifications playing a minimal role in who wins. At their worst, judicial elections are tainted by what Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille calls the ‘corrosive effect of money.’ An appointed judiciary with voter oversight is the remedy.”

On Friday, Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake, filed the following written testimony to the Senate committee.

You can read the Inquirer editorial,  and also learn more by visiting Choose Judges on Merit, the blog of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.

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Pa. Hearing Considers Merit Selection

Leaders of Pennsylvanians for Moderns Courts testified Tuesday before the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee in Harrisburg, urging legislation to choose Pennsylvania’s appellate judges through a process of merit selection and retention elections.

For a full account of yesterday’s testimony, see PMC’s posting on its Judges on Merit blog. PMC’s Web site also offers specifics about the proposed legislation. One especially interesting feature is the makeup of the nominating commissions, which would assure that a broad cross-section of the public takes part. As is generally the case with merit selection systems, all judges would periodically face voters, to decide whether they would remain on the bench.

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Merit Selection Has a New Supporter

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell has made it clear that judicial selection reform is a priority in Pennsylvania for appellate judges, as evidenced by the commission he put together last spring to look at the possibility of merit selection. Now Gov. Rendell has a new supporter in his fight for merit selection, Chief Justice Ronald Castille (photo at right). In a television interview with WTAE-4 in Pittsburgh, Chief Justice Castille gave his reason for the need to change:

The feeling is out there because of the money that goes around in an elective position like mine that somebody is not gonna get a fair shake. That’s not the way it should be…Those things do erode citizens’ confidence in justice.

Chief Justice Castille later mentioned that money in judicial elections:

Yeah, I would do that just to get the corrosive effect of money out of the election process…. The citizens ought to believe they’re going to get justice no matter who is on the other side, or no matter who in our particular election process, no matter who supported what justice.

The full interview is here.

For more information on the campaign for merit selection, visit our partner’s website, Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, as well as their blog, Judges on Merit.

Note: The Justice at Stake Campaign does not take a position on merit selection or any type of judicial selection system.

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Pa. Reform Group Responds to Journal

Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, which advocates merit selection, has released its letter to the Wall Street Journal, responding to the Journal’s Aug. 14 “judicial coup” editorial.

 The full text of the letter is at PMC’s blog, For other postings on the editorial and its many responses, click here.

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New Call for Reform in Alabama

Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts has pointed out a July 13  Tuscaloosa News editorial called “Big money distorts judicial elections; reform needed.”  You can probably already tell that the general position taken by the editorial is one which we here at Gavel Grab are likely to support.  However you’ll be surprised to learn that we’ve – in fact – already weighed in on the Alabama race.  The Huntsville Times quoted Executive Director Bert Brandenberg when discussing the amount of money that has flowed into Alabama judicial elections in a story it ran June 29.

The editorial says that “…there is no question that big campaign money is distorting the image of justice in this state. If the trend continues this year, reforms have to be considered seriously.”  We couldn’t agree more.

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Court Group Says More Progress Needed in Pa.

Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell’s four nominees, for Pennsylvania’s appellate court openings, were confirmed last week by the Pennsylvania senate. The judges, including Judge Jane Cutler Greenspan to the Supreme Court, have all agreed to not run for re-election once their terms end in 2010.

These appointments are a big step for Pennsylvanians in the realm of judicial nominations because they did not have to go through a partisan election. However, Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a court reform group,  feels that more can be done to reach the goal of merit selection for state appellate judges. In a press release, Lynn Marks, Executive Director of PMC, sought to show the differences between Gov. Rendell’s nomination process, and what true merit selection entails.

There are two major differences between the current interim appointment process and MeritSelection. First, the current process does not use a broad-based independent nominating commission to evaluate candidates and recommend the most qualified to the Governor. Instead, the Governor, working with legislative leaders, devises a list of candidates.

Second, the current process does not involve a role for the public. Under Merit Selection, afterthe judge serves for a brief initial term, the public votes in a nonpartisan retention election on whether or not the judge should continue in office. By contrast, in the current interim appointment process, the judges serve only for a short time and pledge not to seek a full term. This is the political deal that must be made to secure confirmation, and it deprives the public of an opportunity to evaluate the judges and of longer service by good judges

To read more on the PMC’s merit selection campaign, check out their blog Judges on Merit.

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5/14/08: All Around the Blogs

ACLU Obtains More Documents Evidencing Torture – Talk Left
The ACLU have found more proof to prove torture took place in Guantanamo. Talk Left has an interesting discussion going on about this, and links the report on their blog.
Read more…

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5/9/08: What the Presidential Candidates are Saying about Judicial Nominations

Opposing view: Restrain judicial activism – USA Today Blog
Writer Tony Perkins supports John McCain’s views on appointing judges to the Federal and Supreme court.
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