Pennsylvania: House Judiciary Committee approves merit/commission selection for appellate courts with Senate confirmation; con amendment would have to go on a general election ballot

A plan to change the way Pennsylvania’s appellate judges are picked has cleared the House Judiciary Committee, with amendments, earlier this week.

HB 111 of 2017 would amend the state’s constitution to create a merit selection/commission based process.

An Appellate Court Nominating Commission would be created made up of 13 members (8 bar members, 5 non-bar members)

  • 5 appointed by the Governor (4 bar members, 1 non-bar)
  • 2 appointed by the Senate Majority Leader (1 bar members, 1 non-bar)
  • 2 appointed by the Senate Minority Leader (1 bar members, 1 non-bar)
  • 2 appointed by the House Majority Leader (1 bar members, 1 non-bar)
  • 2 appointed by the Senate Minority Leader (1 bar members, 1 non-bar)

The composition of the Commission has been a source of debate for prior iterations of this bill introduced over the last decade and discussed here.

When a vacancy occurs on an appellate court the Commission would submit to the Governor a list of “five of the most qualified individuals”; the Commission would be required in making that list to consider the geographic, racial, ethnic, gender and other diversity of the state. Nominees would also be required to have at least 10 years of legal experience.

The Governor would select from among the list of five names a nominee who would then be subject to Senate confirmation. Under the bill as introduced the Senate would have to give 2/3rds approval; that was amended in committee down to a simple majority.

If the Senate failed to confirm or reject a nominee within a set number of days the person would be automatically confirmed (“the nominee shall take office as if the appointment had been consented to by the Senate.”)

After Senate confirmation, the judge would have an initial term of four years before standing for a yes/no retention election for a full 10 year term.

In addition to amending the Senate confirmation down from 2/3rds to a simple majority, the committee made another key amendment: if HB 111 goes to the voters it must appear on a General Election ballot and not a primary or municipal (spring) ballot.

HB 111 now goes to the full House. If approved by the House and the full Senate, it would have to be re-approved by the 2019/2020 legislature before going to voters.