The latest push for the merit selection of Pennsylvania judges comes as suspended state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin stands trial on a series of campaign corruption charges. “[Melvin’s trial] should be Exhibit A on why we need a system of choosing judges that doesn’t involve partisan campaign practices and judicial fundraising,” Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts Executive Director Lynn Marks tells Radio PA. “It’s a very timely illustration.”
Senator Anthony Williams, a Philadelphia Democrat, was introducing his latest merit selection bill just as the jurors were being picked for Melvin’s Allegheny County trial. “I’ve filed a merit selection bill under a Democratic governor and I’m filing one under a Republican one. This isn’t a matter of partisanship. It’s about ensuring integrity on the bench,” Williams said in a statement.
Under the merit selection bill, appellate court judges (Commonwealth, Superior, Supreme) would be nominated by the governor from a pool of candidates that have been pre-selected by an independent, bipartisan commission. The governor’s selection would then be subject to the Senate confirmation process.
“It doesn’t make sense to have people campaign in a totally partisan process, while at the same time they’re pledging to be non-partisan after Election Day,” says Marks.
While critics say this sort of reform plan is more ‘political appointment’ than merit selection, Marks stresses that it takes the money out of the process. She’s not naive enough to say it’s going to get rid of all the politics, but Marks calls merit selection a vast improvement over the current system.
Merit selection would require a constitutional amendment, which means Williams’ bill would need to pass the General Assembly in two consecutive sessions before it could be put to the voters for ratification.
Since he left office in January 2011, former Governor Ed Rendell sightings have been rare around the state capitol. That’s by design, as Rendell says he vowed “to be an ex-Governor” and refrain from criticizing the new administration. But Rendell opened up in a wide-ranging speech at a Pennsylvania Press Club forum, Monday, in Harrisburg. After breaking down the presidential race, Rendell fielded questions on everything from education to the Eagles. Perhaps his most entertaining comments came in response to a question about his interest in running for public office again: EdRendell-Office
Rendell has been keeping busy since leaving office: publishing a new book called A Nation of Wusses, writing a sports column in the Philadelphia Daily News, and serving as co-chair of the Campaign to Fix the Debt. Nonetheless, Rendell says he does miss public service.
Citing 87% public support, Governor Tom Corbett says he would sign Voter ID legislation as soon as it gets to his desk. “I look at it this way, it ensures one man, one vote,” Corbett says. The bill being so hotly debated in the House would require all voters to show an approved form of photo ID every time they go to the polls.
The January poll from Terry Madonna Opinion Research indicates that 47.2% of statewide voters “strongly favor” requirements that voters show a drivers license or other state issued identification before they can vote. 39.6% “somewhat favor” the concept.
Next months’ primary would be a dry run, and the Voter ID bill would be enforced for the first time this November. While critics balk that it’s too fast of an implementation, Corbett disagrees. “This has been the subject of discussion for a number of years. We have an election coming up. Let’s get it done,” Corbett says. “Quite honestly you could ask the question in reverse, Why not get it done?”
The governor’s budget plan sets aside $1-million to provide funds to issue non-drivers license identification cards to any voter who declares it necessary for voting purposes. Democrats, however, argue that the actual cost of implementation would be $11-million.
As of the time of this post, the House was still debating the bill. If it concurs in Senate amendments, the House would send the bill directly to Corbett’s desk.
As the state Senate Appropriations Committee was preparing to consider controversial voter ID legislation, the Protect Our Vote coalition gathered in the capitol rotunda to urge lawmakers to reject the proposal. The group also unfurled a roll of petitions filled with 13,000 signatures of voter ID opponents. Copies of those petitions were then delivered to all 50 state senators.
“It is an unfunded mandate to be passed along to the cities, towns and taxpayers of the commonwealth, and will not result in curtailing so-called fraud,” said Michael Brunelle, executive director of the SEIU State Council. The coalition and its supporters say HB 934 is unnecessary, and it will deprive citizens of their right to vote.
But the state would provide free photo IDs to eligible voters who need them, according to Secretary of the Department of State Carol Aichele. “It is my commitment to make sure that everyone who wants a photo ID in Pennsylvania is able to obtain one,” she told the Senate Appropriations Committee last week. The photo IDs would be churned out through PennDOT’s 97 drivers licensing centers, and the governor’s proposed budget has even carved out $1-million for non-drivers ID cards for voting purposes.
The legislation would effectively require all voters to produce an approved form of photo ID every time they go to the polls. Supporters say it would ensure integrity in the vote process, but critics say there’s no evidence of widespread voter fraud.
The bill passed the House (108 – 88) last June. Then, an amended version was advanced by the Senate State Government Committee (6 – 5) in December. The Senate Appropriations Committee passed it late Monday (15 – 11).
A capitol rally has fanned the flames of the Voter ID debate. Back in June the House voted, largely along party lines, to approve a controversial Voter ID bill. As supporters work to get HB 934 considered in the Senate, the Protect Our Vote Coalition is speaking out. Pennsylvania Voice field director Jeff Garis delivered a message to lawmakers: “That creation of jobs, that encouraging and building our economy, that protecting homeowners from being sent out of their homes will be the first item of business – not attempts to disenfranchise voters.”
The coalition calls the Voter ID bill, a voter suppression bill. “Although many people will face no inconvenience if state-issued photo ID is required to vote – those who will be inconvenienced will include a significant number of people with disabilities and elderly seniors,” says Deborah Delgaldo with the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania.
The Voter ID bill would require Pennsylvanians to show an approved form of photo ID every time they vote. State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler) says it ensures integrity in the election process. “It’s just hard to believe that some of these individuals will actually rally around a microphone, to defend a system that has allowed for fraud to occur and for our election code to be violated by ACORN and by other groups,” says Metcalfe, the prime sponsor of HB 934.
Metcalfe’s bill would allow persons without an approved form of photo ID to obtain one for voting purposes at no cost. “You’re making available the photo ID card for free, but the documentation that you need to provide is going to be an obstacle,” explains Garis. “For some people, particularly low income people, seniors on a fixed income, there’s going to be a cost associated with that.”
An analysis from the Pennsylvania Budget & Policy Center pegs the cost of Voter ID implementation – including free ID cards, voter notification and more – at $11 million. While Rep. Metcalfe doesn’t believe the cost will be that high, he does acknowledge there is an associated cost for good government. “This cost is something that taxpayers will support,” he says.
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