Regional districts, merit selection for state judges long overdue

Over the past 50 years, 53 of 96 seats in statewide judicial races have been won be candidates from Philadelphia and Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh.

That makes sense, given the trappings of a statewide judicial election. Most of the information about judicial candidates is limited to a name, party and county of residence.

So voters do what comes instinctively. They tend to cast a ballot for the person of similar party affiliation from their area. And there are more registered voters, obviously in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh areas, than the rest of the state.

A state House committee has advanced a proposal to change how justices and judges are selected in Pennsylvania’s three appellate courts, imposing merit selection and regional districts.

This is long overdue. It also is a long way from happening. The committee approval is the first of many steps required for an amendment to the state Constitution. And the proposal already is drawing opposition from Democrats, although we would like to think judicial rosters would not be viewed in such party-line fashion.

One proposal would generate candidates for three legislatively drawn regions from an appointed commission. The governor and General Assembly would choose commission members from both major parties and different counties and split membership between lawyers and nonlawyers. The governor would nominate from the commission’s list, with Senate confirmation needed.

The other proposal proposal would elect Supreme, Superior and Commonwealth Court judges from districts the General Assembly would draw. The judges and justices would have to live in their district for at least a year before they are elected or appointed.

The districts would be divided in the state by the number of judges — seven for the Supreme Court, 15 for Superior Court and nine for Commonwealth Court.

Neither proposal would end the existing election system for county judges and district magistrates.

These proposals deserve a full airing and discussion of the pros and cons. They are clearly worth looking into given the almost farcical system for electing statewide judges that currently exists.

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