Appointment of judges is best way to insulate them from bitter partisan politics

YORK DISPATCH EDITORIAL BOARD
Shown is a mail-in election ballot with the names of candidates for Pennsylvania Justice of the Supreme Court Democrat Maria McLaughlin and Republican Kevin Brobson, in Glenside, Pa., Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
  • More than $5 million has been spent on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court race.
  • The race has also produced some ugly attack ads.
  • To avoid the undue influence of raising campaing money, it would be better to appoint judges.

It’s jarring, to say the least.

You’re at home innocently watching the news or your favorite show or a sports event, and an attack ad interrupts your television viewing with a blistering assault on a judge that you’ve likely never heard of, in a statewide election you likely didn’t know was happening.

The latter part of that scenario is an indictment on most of us, who typically don’t pay much attention to judicial elections, despite the fact that high-court judges in Pennsylvania can potentially make decisions that could have a large impact on our lives.

More:A full guide to Pennsylvania’s 2021 Supreme Court election and other appellate judicial races

What’s really concerning, however, is that the attack ads tend to work. Candidates wouldn’t continue to use them if they didn’t work. That’s especially true in elections where neither candidate has a high profile and most voters possess relatively little information.

Unfortunately, the last thing many voters remember before stepping into the voting booth to cast their judicial ballot is the 30-second attack ad, which was probably misleading at best, and just plain false at worst.

Pennsylvanians, unfortunately, are suffering first-hand experience with just such an ugly scenario.

The Supreme Court race: According to the Associated Press, spending in the race for an open seat on Pennsylvania's Supreme Court has blown past $5 million, according to new campaign finance reports, with less than one week left until Tuesday’s Election Day.

Spending in Pennsylvania's high court race blows past $5M

Reports filed with the state Friday show that most of it, or roughly $3 million, has been spent to help Republican Kevin Brobson, including spending by third-party groups in the race. That compared with about $2 million to help Democrat Maria McLaughlin through last Monday.

Multiple concerns: That’s concerning on multiple levels.

First, those donors are likely expecting something in return. They’re making an investment and they will want dividends in the form of influence and access. Contested elections create the appearance of justice for sale.

Second, it brings bitter partisan politics front and center into yet another area of our lives. Judges aren’t being evaluated on legal experience and skill, or judicial temperament, but rather the letter beside their names — R or D.

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Finally, the election of judges can devolve into simple popularity contests based on who produces the better, or more likely, the nastier ad.

Those factors threaten the very fabric of an independent and fair judiciary.

Appointment a better option: That’s why we support the appointment of high-court judges using a bipartisan commission equally divided between Democrats and Republicans.

It’s not a perfect solution, and by its very nature it will still be political.

Many will argue that the appointment of judges flies in the very face of our democracy, where voters should hold the ultimate levers of power through the ballot box.

To counter that argument, we think judges, after being appointed, should come up for retention elections at the end of their terms. That would still give the voters some say.

Others argue that the appointers will hold undue influence over the appointees. That may well be true, but that influence is not any greater than that held by the big campaign donors, and at least it eliminates the corrupting influence of having to raise millions in campaign cash.

There are no perfect solutions in a nation so fractured by party lines.

Still, our judicial system must be insulated from politics as much as possible. The appointment of high-court judges is the best way to achieve that.