Last April, Representative Schemel (R-Franklin) introduced House Bill 111 to revise the way in which judges of the State’s Supreme, Superior, and Commonwealth Courts are chosen. The bill sets forth a Joint Resolution, supported by 11 co-sponsors. After being considered by the House Judiciary Committee, the bill was given the first of three required considerations by the House of Representatives and since then has been laid upon the table several times. Now that the House has resumed its legislative session, yesterday the bill was laid on the table and removed from the table for the fourth time.
The bill proposes that the State Constitution be amended to provide that, instead of selecting the judges of those three appellate courts by public election, the judges would be selected by means of a merit selection system, as is done in some other states. In a merit system, elected officials would appoint a bipartisan nominating commission of citizens (lawyers and non-lawyers). That nominating commission would review applicants’ qualifications and would recommend a short list of candidates to the Governor for nomination. After nomination by the Governor, the nominees would undergo a confirmation hearing in the State Senate. Once their nominations have been confirmed by the Senate, the judges would sit for a four year term. Then, and every 10 years thereafter, the judges must stand for a nonpartisan “retention election.”
Representative Schemel indicated in his Memorandum to fellow legislators:
“Merit selection is a better way to ensure a fair, impartial, and qualified judiciary. Merit selection focuses on qualifications: legal experience, reputation for ethical behavior, honesty, fairness and good temperament. Appellate court judges would no longer be chosen based on their ballot position, campaign fundraising abilities, or where they live. Judicial candidates would no longer be required to engage in a process that leaves them seemingly beholden to wealthy lawyers and special interest groups who might appear before them in court. Removing money from our courtrooms helps to increase public confidence in the courts.”
His bill proposes that the nominating commission consist of 13 members, reflecting geographic, gender, racial, and ethnic diversity:
>> 5 appointed by the Governor (no more than 3 from one party; 5 different counties);
>> 8 by the General Assembly (2 from each of 4 caucus leaders, half lawyers and half laypeople).
Commonwealth employees, elected or appointed officials, and political party officials would be prohibited from serving on the commission.
The State Senate, too, has taken up a reform bill that was introduced earlier in the current legislative session. Last January, Senator Argall (R-Berks and Schuykill) had introduced Senate Bill 133, a Joint Resolution proposing that the State Constitution be amended to revise the way in which the Lieutenant Governor is chosen. The bill proposes that, the Governor be allowed to select his or her own running mate, much like the US President and Vice-President are selected and campaign as a team with shared vision for the executive branch. Argall points out that the revised procedure would “provide for greater trust in the executive branch to delegate duties while avoiding potential division and friction between the two office holders.”
The bill had been passed by the Senate in April, 2019, and was, with an amendment of the phrasing, passed by the House of Representatives in December, 2019. Yesterday, the Senate referred the matter to the Rules Committee for reconcilement. Once the two chambers have agreed upon the amended version, the bill would then be transmitted to the Governor for consideration and signature into law.
As is required, once enacted into law, bills resolving that the State Constitution be amended must be re-enacted on identical terms by the Legislature in the following legislative session, and the proposed change to the Constitution must then be approved by Pennsylvania voters in two succeeding elections. It will be a few years before we see the changes proposed by HB 111 and SB 133 implemented in Pennsylvania.