It has happened again with the merit selection of judges. Pennsylvania is one of only six states that elects all its judges, a situation that leads to plenty of problems. A modest bill to bring the state more in line with the rest of the country is not allowed to be put to a vote.
Who says so? State Rep. Thomas R. Caltagirone, D-Reading, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, says so -- and to heck with what the public might think.
In fact, to heck with what governors think. Last week Gov. Ed Rendell joined former Govs. Tom Ridge, Mark Schweiker and Dick Thornburgh in pleading for legislation on merit selection, which must pass two consecutive sessions of the Legislature before being put on the ballot for the people's vote. If lawmakers get off their duffs, this constitutional amendment could be put to voters as early as May 2011.
But His Exalted Majesty, Mr. Caltagirone, knows better than the people or any distinguished bipartisan group of governors. He has declared himself satisfied with the existing way of electing judges in Pennsylvania and has no plans to move the bill -- it is "going nowhere," he said. Mr. Caltagirone has heard that Missouri introduced merit selection and has had problems.
That would be something to debate if the legislation were advanced. As it is, the status quo in Pennsylvania isn't exactly peachy either. Everybody knows that in this state political hacks and others who have nothing to recommend them but a familiar name can easily become judges in the lottery of a judicial election.
People also know that electing judges has become dubious big business -- last year $4.7 million was spent on the state Supreme Court race and now Sen. Jane Orie, the sister of the successful candidate, Joan Orie Melvin, stands accused of politicking on state time. If merit selection had been in place, neither the cost nor the controversy would have occurred.
The legislation bottled up by Mr. Caltagirone was sponsored by state Rep. Matt Smith, D-Mt. Lebanon. His House Bills 1621 and 1619 do not cut the voters out of the process of selecting judges. Only the three state appellate courts would be affected. The selection would be done by a 14-member panel, comprised of members of the public and others chosen by the governor and the General Assembly. Nominees would be confirmed by the Senate and the judges would face a retention election after four years and then a retention vote every 10 years.
What possible harm could there be to letting lawmakers vote for something that must be endorsed or rejected by the public? But Mr. Caltagirone has been a member of the House for 33 years. If he were a sea wall, he would be covered with barnacles -- and in a sense he is, being firmly an impediment to this tide of change. And the Democratic House leadership is no better, for letting him bottle up this bill.
The status quo exercises its powers to turn back another threat to the status quo -- and the public be damned.