Along with the election of local judges and intermediate appellate Judges, the 2015 election features openings on three of the seven seats on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. It is unprecedented that three of seven seats are open in one election, and the stakes are high. Control of the Court is up for grabs.
This situation has developed because one Justice was removed from office after having been convicted of election-related crime, while another resigned under the cloud of inappropriate communications and the use of public property in that process. The last seat is up due to the retirement of another Justice.
The fact that control of the Court is at stake has generated a great deal of interest in this election. In addition, the need to replace two Justices who departed under such tawdry circumstances has again brought to the forefront the question of whether it is better to elect or appoint judges. Pennsylvania judges are elected. Federal judges are appointed. Other states vary.
The knock against elected judges is that the public is likely to elect people who may be great, partisan politicians, but who are ill-suited to serve in what is supposed to be the neutral and dispassionate role of a judge. The judicial candidate must wade through the same political system as any other candidate for office, but be expected to be that special sort of person who can put his or her personal views aside, and decide cases solely upon the facts and the law. That is difficult enough for any person to do, let alone one who has sprung from the ideological, partisan and dealmaking world of politics.
On the plus side is the belief that the elected judge may be closer to the people, and that his or her serving as judge derived from a fair and open election rather than as the result of backroom, undisclosed deals which were made by politicians.
The argument against the appointment of judges is just that. It always comes down to politics in one way or another. Consider that many people believe that the most enduring thing that a President of the United States achieves while in office is the appointment of federal judges from his own party, who are expected to reflect the principles of that party in future judicial decisions. If that is how the appointed system really works, what is the point? If the public is left with judges who put their personal beliefs above their obligation to serve as impartial and disinterested arbiters, how could this system suit a representative democracy such as the United States?
On the plus side of appointed judges, is the fact that the credentials and background of a candidate for appointment as a judge are subject to public scrutiny during the appointment process. It is argued that appointing judges results in a bench composed of more academic and professional jurists. Election results tend to be related to party affiliation or name recognition, neither of which relates to a candidate’s qualifications, character, or ability to serve as a judge. In an appointment system there is the hope that those best suited to serve are appointed.
Things do not always turn out as expected when it comes to judges. American history is replete with examples of judges who have surprised and disappointed those who appointed them. The most notable are probably Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Earl Warren, who was at the helm during a period of great change, and his latest successor, Chief Justice John Roberts, who cast the deciding vote upholding Obamacare. Both of these Judges sorely disappointed the Presidents who appointed them. The courts of Pennsylvania are full of hard working, honest, elected judges who have taken their oaths seriously, who dispense justice in accordance with the law, and who have grown into the office they hold notwithstanding the fact that they had to cross the quagmire of Pennsylvania elective politics to achieve it.
Most judges, like most lawyers, doctors and other professions, seek the post for all of the right reasons, and they perform the job admirably once they have it. Most judges, whether appointed or elected, possess the integrity and talent to do the job properly and well.
Since we are in a state in which judges are elected, it is incumbent upon the voters to familiarize themselves with the candidates before they go to the polling place. Obtaining information about candidates is far easier today than in the past. So, do a little homework, and regardless of your political affiliation, take the time to vote in this and all elections.