- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 17, 2015

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - In a story June 16 about a plan to appoint Pennsylvania appellate judges instead of electing them, The Associated Press erroneously reported how judges would be picked for an initial four-year term. The judges would be appointed, not elected.

A corrected version of the story is below:

Bill proposes appointing Pennsylvania’s appellate judges

Bill would let voters decide whether to appoint, not elect, Pennsylvania’s appellate judges,

By PETER JACKSON



Associated Press

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - In a high-stakes election year for Pennsylvania’s highest court, lawmakers Tuesday advanced a bill that would authorize a statewide referendum on whether future appellate judges should be appointed by the governor.

The bill referred to the House Judiciary Committee would start the process of amending the state constitution to end the practice of electing judges to the Supreme, Superior and Commonwealth courts.

Replacing it would be a “merit-selection” system that calls for a 13-member bipartisan panel appointed by the governor and legislative leaders to recommend a short list of candidates. The governor would have to choose one as the nominee and the Senate would decide whether the appointee is confirmed.

The bill’s introduction coincides with the hotly contested race for an unprecedented three open seats on the state Supreme Court. Democrats and Republicans picked their nominees in the May 19 primary from a field of 12 contestants who collectively took in more than $5 million in contributions - fanning speculation that the general election phase would attract record campaign contributions within the state and beyond.

Proponents say the merit-selection bill would take politics out of the courtroom and focus on the candidates’ qualifications. Opponents say voters should be free to choose their judges.

Lynn Marks, who has championed the merit selection concept for years, said the present system of electing judges puts a premium on fundraising that may create the perception that judges are unfairly influenced by campaign contributors.

Pennsylvania is one of only seven states that use partisan elections to select all their judges, said Marks, director of the Philadelphia-based judicial reform group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.

“It’s a bipartisan, nonpartisan, issue for those who really care about the justice system,” she said.

Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Rick Bloomingdale said the labor federation in recent years has relaxed its staunch opposition to merit selection. But he said he isn’t convinced it is the solution to perennially light voter turnout for judicial elections and the growing role of campaign contributions.

“Who chooses what merit is - the voter or a group of folks who are out of touch with the voters?” he asked.

Rep. Ron Marsico, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, said he supports the bill and would like to see it put to a vote by the full House, but a more immediate concern is getting it out of committee.

“I think it’s going to be tough,” the Dauphin County Republican said.

The bill would require approval in two successive legislatures before it could be sent out to Pennsylvania voters for ratification, possibly as early as 2017.

Judges appointed under the proposal would be appointed to an initial term of four years and subsequently must seek voter approval for additional 10-year terms in yes-or-no retention votes. Currently, appellate judges are initially elected to 10-year terms and must stand for retention every 10 years.

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