Pennsylvania is one of 39 states in which voters elect state appellate court judges. An effort to change the state’s process to one of gubernatorial appointment is apparently dead for the year, after encountering significant opposition from outside interest groups. The move comes just weeks after Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin was indicted for ethical violations.
A constitutional amendment proposal by State Rep. Bryan Cutler (R), tabled earlier this month on a 13–12 Judiciary Committee vote, would have created a commission to select potential nominees for the state state’s appeals court and allow the governor to choose nominates, with the consent of the state state. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the proposal failed in large part because of opposition by anti-abortion activists and other interest groups:
A pivotal development occurred June 1, when the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation, an anti-abortion group, informed members of the House Judiciary Committee that it opposed the measure and would weigh members’ votes when making endorsements in the next election. A few days later, the committee voted to table the proposal.
“The pro-life movement in Pennsylvania has been historically opposed to so-called merit selection of judges, and that position has not changed,” federation legislative director Maria Gallagher wrote in an e-mail to members of the committee. “So-called merit selection is an elitist system which places too much power in the hands of very few.”
The anti-abortion group spends money in support of judicial candidates it believes will oppose abortion rights, so the current system allows it — and its donors — a great deal of influence as to who fills the state’s judicial branch.
One of the most troubling aspects of the Supreme Court’s 5–4 Citizens United ruling is that outside special interests are now free to spend as much as they want on ads for or against candidates not just for those running for legislative and executive offices, but also for judicial positions. In North Carolina, a Super PAC is raising funds to back the re-election of a pro-corporate conservative state Supreme Court Justice. Since these groups cannot coordinate with candidates, a company or interest could either create a conflict-of-interest by making sizable contributions to an independent-expenditure effort in favor of a judge likely to rule their way — or could create the appearance of a conflict-of-interest by donating to a judicial candidate otherwise likely vote rule against them.