Pennsylvania is teetering on the brink of losing its independent appellate judiciary. Legislation that would ask voters to agree to balkanize how our justices and judges are selected for Pennsylvania’s three statewide appellate courts is advancing though the General Assembly. Currently, jurists who sit on our appellate courts are elected on a statewide basis. House Bill 196, sponsored by Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, wants to divide the state into a myriad of districts based on the number of justices and judges sitting in each appellate court — seven for the Supreme Court, 15 for Superior Court and nine for Commonwealth Court — and to hold judicial elections within those districts. This is an attempt to effect a transformation of the third branch of our government into a legislature of sorts with jurists being expected to represent the views of their districts, views Mr. Diamond and the bill’s supporters want to ensure mirror theirs more often.
Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts strongly opposes H.B. 196. We have long believed that partisan elections are damaging to the integrity of the judiciary and the public’s confidence in the work of our courts. In Pennsylvania, even the most qualified judicial candidates for statewide appellate judgeships are dependent on campaign contributions from individuals and special interest groups with business before the courts. This dependency creates an appearance of impropriety that ultimately undermines public confidence in Pennsylvania’s courts and potentially threatens judicial independence.
This bill would render judicial elections even more fraught than they already are. Significantly reducing the pool of voters for each judicial candidate will only serve to heighten judges’ feelings and the perception of the public at large that those judges’ decisions represent the interests only of those who voted for them and/or funded their campaigns. Moreover, it will inhibit the independent mindset that is required to adjudicate legal issues of statewide importance.
Placing judicial candidates in the same position as legislators — presenting their positions on issues and securing funding from people who support those issues — is not only unproductive, it contravenes the standards we expect them to meet while serving us as judges. Forcing them to do that in smaller and smaller districts upends the role of the courts and will leave us with no independent branch of government to balance the power of the legislature and executive.
President & CEO
Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts
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Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts is a statewide nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to ensuring that all Pennsylvanians can come to our courts with confidence that they will be heard by qualified, fair, and impartial judges
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