State Senator Weighs In on Merit Selection Proposal

While Gov. Edward G. Rendell pitched an appointment process for the state’s appellate courts a year ago, State Sen. Jane M. Earll, R-Erie, said that she is sponsoring the judicial merit selection proposal of her own volition and because of her long-standing interest in merit selection.

Earll wasn’t available to be interviewed until after The Legal published a story Feb. 29 about the plan. During an interview for that article, Chuck Ardo, a Rendell spokesman, said the proposal was part of a reform package Rendell submitted to legislators several months ago. It’s “something he strongly supports,” Ardo said at the time.

Earll, for her part, says she believes that this a good political moment to introduce the proposal because there are many new members in the legislature and because the Pennsylvania Democratic and Republican party chairs, T.J. Rooney and Robert A. Gleason Jr., respectively, have come out for support.

“I’ve had a long interest in how we elect our appellate judges,” Earll said. “I think it’s time. I’m really not doing it to coincide with [Rendell], although it’s great that he’s on board.”

The senator said it also was an important time to consider merit selection because of the large amount of money spent in last year’s appellate court races, including from the outside Virginia interest group that ran ads in support of Superior Court Judge Maureen Lally-Green’s unsuccessful bid for the Supreme Court, which highlights the need for reform in the way Pennsylvania appellate judges are chosen.

Earll said the proposal is just a starting point and that she is flexible about what form merit selection of judges ultimately takes.

“I don’t have an attitude it has to be my way or the highway,” Earll said. “I’d like to get to the end point of merit selection.”

Earll, however, is realistic that building political reform for a process is a tough slog.

“I don’t kid myself,” Earll said. “Any kind of systemic chance like this takes a long time to accomplish in Pennsylvania. We have a tendency to stick with what we know … Change is tough.”

The plan is going to be introduced in the General Assembly sometime this month. The proposal, being circulated for cosponsor support in the Senate by Earll and in the House of Representatives by Rep. David J. Steil, R-Bucks, would amend the state Constitution to allow the appointment of judges and would institute a merit selection process.

The General Assembly proposal includes these elements:

* A 14-member, nonpartisan “citizens Appellate Court Nomination Commission” would recommend judicial candidates.

* Four of the commission’s members would be appointed by the governor, and four by the General Assembly, including four by the legislative leaders. Six would be public members.

* Legislative appointees must be lawyers, and none can be connected to the General Assembly.

* Gubernatorial appointees must be from four different counties and unconnected to the governor, and no more than two appointees can be of the same political party. At least two must be lawyers.

* Five public members will be drawn from nominees put forth by unions, civic groups, public safety groups, business organizations and non-lawyer, professional associations.

* Additionally, one public member will be a dean of a Pennsylvania law school selected by all the deans of the Pennsylvania law schools.

* Commission members will serve four years and without compensation, except for expenses.

* Commission members will pick judicial nominees from applicants that are in good standing with the bar, have practiced law, been on the bench or worked in the legal field for at least 10 years and have demonstrated integrity, judicial temperament, professional competence and commitment to the community. The commission also will consider that the nominee list is made up of both genders and is racially, ethnically and geographically diverse.

* The governor must select candidates from the list, and the Senate will have an advice and consent role.

* Appointees would face a retention election after an initial four years. Every retention election after the first retention would come every decade.

— Amaris Elliott-Engel, Staff Reporter

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