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Letter to PA Senators: Committee of Seventy Opposes Regional Judicial Elections, HB 196

July 13, 2020

Dear Senator:

For more than 30 thirty years, the Committee of Seventy and Pennsylvanians for Moderns Courts have supported merit-selection for our commonwealth’s appellate courts. As you know, every living Pennsylvania Governor supports the idea of merit selection. My father, Dick Thornburgh, championed merit selection throughout his career, starting with his service as a delegate in the 1967-68 Constitutional Convention.

Seventy is deeply concerned about the flood of money entering judicial elections, a worsening trend that led to a record-shattering $21 million in 2015 and contributes to the politicization of our courts. But transforming the judiciary into something more closely resembling a legislature is the absolute wrong direction.

Compelling prospective judges to run in regionalized, partisan elections could well exacerbate the problems we see in the status quo, subjecting candidates to the pressures and interests of both well-heeled super PACs and parochial partisans. And, further, they would have to run in districts drawn by the General Assembly at a time when the threat and consequences of gerrymandering have been made exponentially greater through big data and computing power.

Ultimately, judges must not be politicians, and the best-formed method of installing them mitigates politics and prioritizes professional qualifications, integrity, and character. Seventy would welcome the opportunity to discuss and debate merit selection reform, recent versions of which have garnered strong bipartisan support -- a hallmark of true reform. On this point, we do approve of the widely-supported House Bills 1069 and 2463 to bolster transparency in government.

But we urge you not to move forward with House Bill 196, especially when so much work remains to be done to administer an election in November likely to draw record turnout amid a global pandemic. Pennsylvanians need safe, secure, accessible means to cast ballots during this public health crisis. This must be our singular focus in the coming weeks.

David Thornburgh
President and CEO
Committee of Seventy