Archive for September, 2008

Sep 30 2008

Calling for Merit Selection in Greene County, MO

The News-Leader in Springfield, MO, has come out in favor of Merit Selection for Greene County.  Describing the reasons the editorial board is supporting the change from partisan elections, the editorial first quotes a former local attorney:

[T]he current partisan system for electing judges in Greene County just doesn’t feel right. . . .  ‘It puts lawyers in a really bad position,’ [Shawn] Askinosie said, ‘and, frankly, it puts judges in a really bad position, too.’

That opinion, from a lawyer-turned-businessman who really had nothing to gain when he recently decided to speak to our Community Editorial Advisory Board, is not to be dismissed lightly.

It helped sway us toward support for a new way of selecting judges in Greene County.

Although we are advocating reform only at the appellate level in Pennsylvania, we are watching the events in Greene County.  We wish the reformers luck in their upcoming referendum, and we hope Pennsylvanians will soon get their own chance to weigh in on how we should select appellate judges.

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Sep 29 2008

Pennsylvania Council of Churches Supports Merit Selection

The Pennsylvania Council of Churches supports Merit Selection of Pennsylvania’s appellate court judges. In written testimony submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee in connection with its recent hearings on Merit Selection legislation, the Pennsylvania Council of Churches explained:

Our interest in the proposed system comes from our concern about the biblical principle of justice. Among the more important changes, merit selection will completely remove fundraising and the influence of campaign money from the selection process. By doing so it creates a system where all qualified Pennsylvanian lawyers who aspire to be on the appellate courts have a fair chance to reach the bench.

This nicely sums up why so many groups and individuals are recognizing that electing appellate judges just isn’t the best way to get the most qualified, fair and impartial judges on the bench. Thanks to the Pennsylvania Council of Churches for supporting this important reform.

You can read more about the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing and view the testimony of other Merit Selection supporters on our Report on the Senate Hearing page.

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Sep 26 2008

Candidate for Governor Proposes Changes to Missouri Plan

The Missouri Plan long has served as a model for other states seeking to design Merit Selection systems.  In recent years, there has been some conflict between the Governor and the nominating commission about the lists of recommended candidates.  This week, Republican gubernatorial candidate Kenny Hulshof proposed changing the composition of the nominating commission.

An Associated Press piece in the Columbia Missourian reports that Hulsof believes the nominating commission is dominated by plaintiffs’ trial lawyers.  Hulshof’s plan calls for replacing the three attorney seats, filled by election among lawyers in different geographic regions, with three retired judges.  He also proposes eliminating the seat for the Chief Justice of the state and replacing it with a retired Supreme Court justice.

In addition, Hulshof argues that the commission should be required to submit five names to the Governor, rather than three and he proposes giving the Governor the power to request a second list.  Under this proposal, If no one on either list is acceptable to the Governor, the Governor may nominate anyone of his or her choosing, subject to Senate confirmation.  This is a significant change from the current system, where the Governor’s rejection of the list of nominees results in an appointment made by the nominating commission.

Hulshof’s opponent in the governor’s race, Jay Nixon, claims the new proposal would make judicial selection even more political.  He recommends making some changes to the system, such as publicizing the names of all applicants considered by the commission, but opposes the changes to the nominating commission and the procedural changes recommended by Hulshof.

We have concerns about the Hulshof proposal, particularly the provisions related to the Governor’s selection of a nominee.  We will be watching what happens and keeping you posted. Visit Gavel Grab for more on this story.

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Sep 25 2008

A Call to Eliminate Judicial Elections in Lousiana

Louisiana, like Pennsylvania, is one of only six states that elects all of its judges in partisan elections.  The Shreveport Times editorialized this week in favor of eliminating elections and moving to a merit system, at least for local courts.  Although we are advocating for a change only at the appellate level in Pennsylvania, the editorial points out many of the problems with electing judges.  For example, the money:

Much of the cash for mounting a campaign comes from the legal community and much of the campaign debt is later retired by these same lawyers. Seems like the seeds of a conflict of interest to us when the attorneys in your courtroom may be big contributors.

That’s what we’ve been saying about elections here in Pennsylvania.  Touting the benefits of Merit Selection, the editorial continues:

An alternate system of appointing judges in theory would make selections based upon qualifications rather than political or social connections. Local bar associations or review commissions would look only at lawyers with established minimum years experience and assess their competency with expert eyes. A merit system also reduces the influence of politics and money in judicial elections.

We wish them good luck in Louisiana, and we hope the people of Pennsylvania will get the chance to decide whether to change how we pick our appellate judges.

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Sep 24 2008

“There’s a better way,” says Senator Jane Earll

In the most recent Pennsylvania Senate Republican News podcast (September 19, 2008) State Senator Jane Earll voices her support for Merit Selection and explains that the September 16 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing was important to “lay some groundwork so by the time that these pieces [Senate Bills 1324 and 1325] get reintroduced, people might have a better understanding  of why it is necessary to change the way that we select our appellate court judges.”

I think there is a perception that money controls the process, that ultimately our courts are not diverse because average people cannot run statewide races for the amount of money that it involves, and I think that ballot position actually goes a long way in determining who ultimately is going to sit on our courts.  And I think there’s a better way to do it.

We appreciate and thank Senator Earll for her leadership and support on this critical issue.  Download the podcast here.

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Sep 23 2008

The Meaning of Money: Caperton v. Massey

Published by under Judges,News

This past weekend, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article addressed the concerns about the effect of large  contributions to judicial campaigns and the public perception that justice is for sale.  The context was the ongoing case involving West Virginina judicial elections, Caperton v. Massey,

The case, which we have covered before, revolves around whether the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was violated by a judge’s refusal to recuse himself from a case involving a major campaign contributor.  It illustrates the problems with the recusal system, which relies on judges to voluntarily step aside when their impartiality might reasonably be questioned.  Different judges interpret the recusal guidelines differently: some feel that only evidence of bias should disqualify a judge, while others believe that “the mere appearance of impropriety, regardless of whether it is supported by fact, can compromise the public confidence in the courts.”  (Gavel Grab has more about recusal and Caperton v. Massey.)

The article offers a thorough history of the case, a survey of how much it costs to run a judicial campaign in various states and a primer on past recusal cases.  Explaining that the parties are waiting to hear whether the United States Supreme Court will take the case, the article quotes Mr. Fawcett, the lawyer representing Mr. Caperton: “As soon as people start to think there’s a possibility justices can be affected by campaign contributions, quickly you’re at a point where the pillars of the system can collapse.”

We will be watching the case and keeping you posted on its status.  But this is another good reminder of what electing appellate judges in expensive partisan campaigns just doesn’t make sense.

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Sep 21 2008

Philadelphia Inquirer: Merit Selection’s A Good Solution

In an editorial Saturday, the Philadelphia Inquirer praised Merit Selection as a good solution to the problems inherent in electing judges:

What citizens already have decided about judicial elections is that they’re confusing at best, with legal qualifications playing a minimal role in who wins. At their worst, judicial elections are tainted by what Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille calls the “corrosive effect of money.” An appointed judiciary with voter oversight is the remedy.

The editorial also pointed out the errors of those who claim Merit Selection would take something away from the voters:

Opponents of the merit-based appointment system argue that it disenfranchises voters. But the hybrid approach proposed for Pennsylvania would give voters their say.

Once appointed, Supreme Court justices – and judges on the Commonwealth and Superior Courts – all would have to pass muster with voters after an initial period on the bench. To continue in office, these judges would have to win a yes/no retention election. . . .

Of course, the switch to an appointed system requires voter approval through a constitutional amendment, once the General Assembly approves a plan over two legislative sessions. “So part of our pitch is: Let people vote,” says Lynn A. Marks of the Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts reform group. Indeed, how can critics of merit selection deny voters their input?

That’s a question we would love to hear answered.

The editorial is worth a full read, because it offers a good recap of the reasons we need to find a new way of selecting appellate court judges.  We hope the people of Pennsylvania will get the opportunity to decide whether to do so.

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Sep 18 2008

Watch Senate Hearing on Merit Selection on PCN

Published by under Merit Selection News

The Pennsylvania Cable Network, PCN, will be airing this week’s Senate Judicary Committee Hearing on Merit Selection on Friday September 19 at 3:25.  We will post additional airings as they are scheduled. For schedule and station information visit PCN. For our full coverage of the hearing, visit our earlier post and our Report on the Senate Hearing page.

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Sep 18 2008

Governor Rendell Reaffirms Support for Merit Selection

Following the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on September 16, Governor Edward G. Rendell reaffirmed his long-standing support for Merit Selection of appellate judges.  In a press release issued by his office, Governor Rendell stated:

Our system of electing appellate judges makes no sense at all. It takes a tremendous amount of time and money to run a statewide campaign, yet our judicial candidates are forced to accept indirect contributions from lawyers and special interest groups that know they will, one day, have to argue a case before that judicial candidate.

Governor Rendell included Merit Selection in an earlier reform package he proposed for Pennsylvania, believing it was a critical piece in the effort to reform state government and restore public confidence in the government:

As I said in March 2006 when I unveiled a comprehensive government reform package that included merit selection of appellate judges, Pennsylvanians have made very clear they want to reduce the influence of money in politics. Establishing a merit selection system would squarely remove the real influence of money in our judicial elections.

We thank Governor Rendell for his continuing support of judicial selection reform.

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Sep 18 2008

Coverage of the Senate Hearing

Folks are talking about Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Merit Selection.  The Legal Intelligencer ran a front page article about the hearing, quoting many who testified and noting that Senator Jane Earll plans to reintroduce the legislation in the new session beginning in January 2009. The Legal reported that Merit Selection supporters “argued that while politics can’t be taken out of the judicial selection process, an appointed system will lessen the sway of partisan politics over judicial candidates who must decide judicial controversies impartially.”  The Legal also noted that:

[N]o rights would be taken away in this proposal because Pennsylvania voters will ultimately have the right to approve or disapprove the proposal if the merit selection bill passes both legislative houses in two consecutive sessions, said Lynn Marks, executive director of PMC; Gene Barr, vice president for government relations at the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business & Industry; and Edward Lanza, an attorney with Saul Ewing and a member of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Central Pennsylvania’s board.

Our Coalition partner the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business & Industry posted this account of the hearing, quoting the testimony of Vice President Gene Barr:

In order to command the absolute respect and confidence of the public at large in an independent, non-partisan judiciary, Pennsylvania needs to move from a partisan election approach driven by special interests and money to one that is based upon one’s qualifications.

And check out Gavel Grab’s post about the hearing.

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