There are a lot of problems with the way we select judges in Pennsylvania. Delaware County Democrats think the solution is to add more political partisanship to the process.

You’ll have to forgive us if we disagree.

Judges in the commonwealth, from the trial courts to the Supreme Court, are elected on a partisan basis. But once they take office, they are expected to preside over cases on a nonpartisan basis. After ten years on the bench, they go before the voters once more in a retention election. At this point, they do not stand as members of a party, but on their record as judges.

Usually, only misconduct as a judge merits a “no” vote on retention. Regular judges who do their job well are almost always retained in office, regardless of party.

READ MORE — From the Editors: End the Harrisburg bacchanalia

It’s an odd mix of partisan election and meritocratic retention, but it has worked for Pennsylvania for a long time. Our system is far from perfect, but nonpartisan retention elections give the judiciary democratic accountability while keeping sitting judges out of politics.

The Delco Democratic Party wants to trash all of that.

Earlier this month, the Delaware County Democratic Committee voted 18–17 to not support retention of any judge elected as a Republican. As if to make it clear that this is no coincidence and not in any way related to the quality of the judges in question, county party chair Colleen Guiney told the Inquirer that the party’s decision is not to criticize any individual decisions made by the judges.

That is to say, it’s all about politics.

Since coming into office on a wave of anti-Trump sentiments, many suburban Democrats have focused on the idea of “restoring norms.” But since taking office in 2019, Democrats in Delco have been nothing but relentlessly political.

Efficient government? Why have that when you can hire your friends and donors and run up unprecedented legal bills at their firms? Transparency? Nah, just stack the election board in contravention of state law. Believe women? Sure, unless they accuse one of your own of sexual misconduct. And don’t even start on the extreme spending for which the bill is about to come due.

The Delco Democratic machine has come to embody everything they once accused the Republicans of being — and then some.

It all begins to look like a norm-defying political machine more corrupt than any in the state, with the possible exception of Philadelphia. An independent judiciary is supposed to stand as a bulwark against this sort of rampant political corruption, but judges can’t do that if they, too, get folded into the political machine. 

Partisan retention elections are deadly to the idea of an independent judiciary. Instead of fidelity to the law and the constitution, Delco Dems are telling judges that they’d better be loyal to the party if they want to keep their jobs. Justice is blind, but in Delco, it had better be registered Democrat.

The Delco Republican Party has elected not to follow the Delaware County Democrats into madness. “We’re not interested in weighing into that,” GOP chair Frank Agovino told the Inquirer. And plenty of Democrats agree. District Attorney (and candidate for Attorney General) Jack Stollsteimer made it clear that he did not endorse his party’s take on judges. The Inquirer editorial board also cast a doubtful eye on the idea, writing that “judges should be evaluated on their judicial performance — their legal acumen, temperament, and rulings — not on the party affiliation letter next to their names.”

We have to agree. The Delco Democratic machine has come to embody everything they once accused the Republicans of being — and then some. Judicial retention should remain what it has always been in Pennsylvania: a question of merit, not of party.

Broad + Liberty is a nonprofit media endeavor dedicated to sharing voices and stories that are shut out of other media outlets. @BroadAndLiberty

2 thoughts on “From the Editors: Judicial retention elections should not be political footballs”

  1. Two decades is more than long enough for anyone to stay sequestered in judicial authority. One term is enough. Noretention period. Even in the unlikely event that they’re the second coming of Oliver Wendell Holmes

  2. “…merit selection and retention elections offer a far better alternative to contested elections. Judges must be independent from political pressure so they can vindicate constitutional rights without fear of political backlash. The judiciary is the only institution that can remedy violations of the constitution by the other branches of government. At the first step of the process, merit selection frees a potential judge from political influence by focusing on his or her qualifications, not on the ability to make deals with legislators or rake in campaign contributions. Retention elections, the second step of the process, subject judges to much less political pressure than contested elections and offer greater judicial independence. Although some recent retention elections have become politicized, these systems can provide the public with unbiased, neutral information on a judge’s qualifications and record. This allows voters to focus on merit and not on one or two politicized, high-profile cases.” – Billy Corriher, 2012 “Merit Selection and Retention Elections Keep Judges Out of Politics”
    Here is a link describing various selection methods for judges – and pros & cons:

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