Jaye Cawkins stepped out of her polling place not entirely sure about what she’d just done. Like many of the 1.6 million people who voted in Pennsylvania on Nov. 5, Cawkins didn’t know much about the judicial candidates on the ballot. They’re not like other politicians, who knock on doors for votes, run races with more media coverage and compile easily-digestible records of their votes, she said. “There’s no way you can sit and go over every one” of a judge’s decisions, said Cawkins, 56, of the North Side. Pennsylvania is one of seven states that elects judges in partisan elections, according to the American Bar Association. Two state representatives — Bryan Cutler, R-Peach Bottom, and Brian Sims, D-Philadelphia — introduced a bill to change that.
They propose establishing a commission with no politicians to select candidates for Supreme, Superior and Commonwealth courts. (Court of Common Pleas judges would remain elected.) The governor would pick nominees from the commission’s list and the Senate would confirm or reject them, a process known as merit selection.
Proponents of the change, including former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, say judges’ jobs shouldn’t depend on fundraising prowess and popularity. The liberal policy group Center for American Progress raised an alarm about such elections with a study released in October that found judges imposed harsher sentences as their re-elections neared. The study did not include Pennsylvania.