Michael McGough

The Monday morning meeting of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial board is usually a looser and more laid-back affair than the rest of the week’s meetings, with accounts of weekend diversions leavening the wonkish debate over how to save Social Security or the Pittsburgh Penguins. But yesterday’s conference in editor John Craig’s office was an almost giddy experience.

After more than two months of interviewing candidates for next Tuesday’s primary elections–a longer period than those three U.S. soldiers spent in Serbian captivity–we, too, were free at last with the commissioning of our last endorsement editorial. The downside is that noncandidate petitioners, Citizens United Against You Name It, can no longer be fobbed off with an appeal to our clotted election calendar.

At yesterday’s meeting I mentioned the bumper crop of candidate signs that so appalled my mother on our Sunday drive, and my colleagues and I couldn’t agree on whether this was evidence of democratic effervescence–our county is choosing its first-ever county executive and county council next Tuesday–or simply a function of a bloated ballot. The latter, I fear, and it’s all because of those damned judges!

The two public-policy windmills against which editorial writers in Pennsylvania are always tilting are the “liquor control” system, a Prohibition hangover that confines the sale of wine and liquor to state-owned stores, and the state’s practice of choosing judges, up to the Supreme Court, in partisan elections. The elective system makes no sense, but it has strong supporters, including labor unions, populists of the left and right and, bizarrely, Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops. (I missed that session of the Vatican Council.)

The PG has editorialized against the elective system for years, but this year it’s personal. Half a hundred would-be judges are competing for six seats on Common Pleas Court, the local trial court, and my deputy editor, Reg Henry, and I have met most of them. If judges were appointed by the governor, we wouldn’t be required to pontificate about judicial elections at all, leaving us more time to focus on the offices that are legitimately filled by the voters–after the sound bites and mudslinging, of course.

Goo-goos like our newspaper and the county bar association strive to help the voters separate the jurisprudential wheat from the chaff, and in fairness there is less chaff than usual this election. (It’s such a huge lottery that even well-qualified lawyers think they might have a chance!) But the process is nutty.

Canons of ethics supposedly prohibit judicial candidates from making campaign promises or talking about issues that might come before them (which is everything in this litigious society), so would-be judges are forced to scare up votes in other ways. It’s not an option for everyone, but a famous political name is an obvious advantage, as Bob Colville, the son and namesake of the much-admired Judge Bob Colville, is likely to discover in his quest to join Dad on the bench. For orphan candidates, there are other shortcuts to success: winning endorsements from labor unions or putting out a message that conveys a get-tough philosophy without crossing the ethical line. Signs for one candidate this year proclaim that “victims have rights, too.”

The tackiest part of the process is the pre-primary endorsement of judicial candidates by the county Democratic committee, whose mostly obscure members are courted by judicial candidates with trinkets, recipes, and various edibles. If Antonin Scalia were to run for Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, he’d be wise to bring some of Nino’s Spaghetti Sauce to the endorsement meeting. David Souter, the bashful New Hampshire bachelor, might dole out complimentary quill pens. And how about “Bork Forks” for those Federalist Society fondue fetes?

But what do the committee people want in return for endorsing a judicial candidate? A promise that the endorsee will be a hanging judge? Coddling for a committeeman’s nephew when he’s pulled in on a DUI? Gleanings from our interviews with candidates suggest that the real answer is simpler and sadder. Committee people want to endorse someone who, once he dons the robe, will remember their kindness and audibly greet them by name outside City Hall. It’s not justice, it’s not really democracy, but it’s very Pittsburgh.