by L. Henry | May 23, 2019

Changes to the way in which Pennsylvania elects statewide appellate court judges and justices and the process for how party nominees for lieutenant governor are selected have been proposed and are now being considered by the state legislature. Each change would require amending the state constitution, so the process is both long and difficult.

Voters last week went to the polls and nominated candidates for two open seats on the state Superior Court.  Turn-out was low, and it is safe to say most voters knew little if anything about the candidates.  Judges and justices of Pennsylvania’s three appellate courts are elected statewide.  Unlike other statewide races, such as for governor or U.S. Senator, little money is spent on judicial races and the candidates struggle for attention.

The judiciary is one-third of our state government.  Judicial races should command the same level of interest and debate as gubernatorial and legislative races, but they do not.  Given the enormous influence and impact decisions of the appellate courts have, something needs to change so voters can become more familiar with the candidates.

Some would take Pennsylvania in precisely the wrong direction by advocating so-called “merit selection” of the statewide judiciary.  That, however, would merely result in special interests and insiders picking a third of state government cutting voters out of the process.

A better idea has been advanced by State Representative Russ Diamond (R-Lebanon).  Diamond would divide the state into judicial districts such as we have for electing members of the legislature or for congress at the national level.  This would accomplish two goals: bring geographically balanced representation to the courts; and by having candidates run in smaller districts make it easier for them to become known by voters.

The challenge to adopting this system is the disproportionate number of judges and justices from the population centers of Philadelphia and Allegheny County.  Many legislators from those areas oppose this reform as they seek to preserve their outsized influence on the courts. Geographically balanced representation, however, is as important for the judiciary as it is the legislative branch of government.

Meanwhile, State Senator David Argall (R-Schuylkill) has proposed amending the state constitution to allow candidates for governor to select their running mate for lieutenant governor.  Currently, candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run separately in the primary, but they are paired in the General Election with voters casting one vote for the nominees as a team.

Over the years this has resulted in some notorious mismatches.  Most recently, Governor Tom Wolf was at odds with his first Lieutenant Governor Mike Stack.  Wolf and Stack never gelled as a team.  The relationship hit rock bottom when the governor took Stack’s state police detail away from him after the lieutenant governor was accused of mistreating those assigned to protect him.  Stack ultimately lost his re-election bid to current Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, with whom Governor Wolf has a warm working relationship.

Senator Argall is proposing to have each party’s nominee for governor select their lieutenant gubernatorial running mate after the May primary. In that way, similar to how presidential candidates essentially pick their running mate for vice president, the compatibility of the candidates would be assured. It also would eliminate voter confusion that often surrounds the process.

For either of these two proposed changes to the process of electing statewide officials to occur requires a state constitutional amendment.  That compels the proposed amendments to be approved by two consecutive sessions of the General Assembly and then be placed on the ballot for voter approval.

Hypothetically, if the change in the process for electing a lieutenant governor passes this session, it could come up for a legislative vote again in early 2021 and if approved go on the ballot that November.  If approved by voters, it would be in place for the next scheduled gubernatorial election in 2022.

That would require a lot to go right, including gaining majority support in both chambers for the proposed amendments.  It is a process that seldom works, but adoption of these amendments would greatly improve the process of electing the appellate court judiciary and the state’s lieutenant governor.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal.  His e-mail address is [email protected].)

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