Jessica M. Karmasek Jan. 31, 2013, 12:27pm

HARRISBURG, Pa. (Legal Newsline) -- One Pennsylvania lawmaker, pointing to the corruption trial of suspended state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, says a judicial merit selection bill would help avoid such future "spectacles."

Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, a Democrat who has represented the state's 8th District since 1998, said last week that citizens should have the "utmost confidence" in their judiciary.

"Right now, that's simply not the case," said Williams, also the Democratic whip.

"I've filed a merit selection bill under a Democratic governor and I'm filing this one under a Republican one. This isn't a matter of partisanship. It's about ensuring the integrity of the bench."

Republican state Sen. Richard Alloway is the lead co-sponsor of the legislation, which seeks to amend the state constitution and reform how state appellate court jurists are selected.

Lower court judges -- from magisterial district judges to judges on the Common Pleas Court -- would continue to be elected.

Under the bill, judges serving on the Commonwealth, Superior and Supreme courts would be appointed by the governor, who would select from a defined list of candidates generated by an independent, bipartisan commission.

The proposed 15-member Appellate Court Nominating Commission would be made up of seven public members and eight members appointed by elected officials; four picked by the governor and four by the General Assembly.

All would be age 18 or older and must come from a minimum of four different counties and be a resident of the state for at least one year prior to service, which would be a four-year term.

The nominating commission would include both attorneys and non-attorneys, and its members would represent the state's "diverse geographic and political makeup."

The commission would activate whenever an appellate court vacancy arises and would provide a list of five candidates per vacancy to the governor within 90 days.

The diverse judicial candidates in the pool would be attorneys licensed to practice law in Pennsylvania who have practiced law or worked in a law-related profession for a minimum of 10 years and have a solid professional and civic reputation.

Judges so selected would stand for a public retention vote on a separate ballot with no party designation at the end of his or her term.

Williams said in a news release last week that creating a mechanism for forming the nominating commission -- including the method of choosing its public members -- will be determined later, but no member of the nominating commission could be a political or appointed office holder.

The senator admitted the bill opens a "lengthy but necessary" dialogue on reshaping the appellate courts. Constitutional amendments require passage in both chambers twice and voted on by the general public prior to adoption.

In crafting their bill, Williams and Alloway consulted with Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a leading nonprofit focused on establishing an "efficient, reflective and responsible judiciary."

Williams has introduced some form of merit selection legislation since 2006, focusing mostly on the local level.

But the crisis in the state Supreme Court pushed him to switch attention to those who set policy for the lower courts, he said.

And while infrequent, public discovery of judicial misconduct can shake a society to its core, Williams said.

"Most judges strive to be upright, and we know those who err are fewer in number. But their impact can be immense, for all of us," he said. "Just look at the deadlock we had over voter ID and a diminished court.

"As we face a number of critical issues, we cannot afford for our high courts, our final arbiters of law, to succumb to forces of corruption."

Melvin's case is a perfect example, the senator said.

In May, the justice was suspended by the state's high court in the wake of pending charges that she allegedly used her office staff to perform campaign work.

According to the criminal docket sheet, Melvin has been charged with seven criminal counts, which include diversion of services, conspiracy and official oppression.

Williams said reasonable perception of corruption can be just as damaging, particularly given that less information circulates about judicial candidates and their credentials.

Merit selection, he believes, would offer a way to produce as clean a bench as possible.

"We cannot have a society of laws if those sworn to uphold them are seen as willing to disregard them," he said. "The courts are our last stance. We can't have people thinking the deck is stacked. That's no way to function in a society.

"Lawmakers are drawn from the people, but our courts are supposed to be our gold standard."

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