Archive for March, 2009

Mar 31 2009

Chancellor of Philadelphia Bar Association Praises Merit Selection

In her monthly column in the Philadelphia Bar Reporter, Philadelphia Bar Association Chancellor Sayde J. Ladov comments on recent episodes of Pennsylvania judges getting into trouble.  After noting the Luzerne County scandal and several recent judicial discipline cases, Ladov exclaims:

At this point, any right thinking human would say: what’s going on here? Is justice for sale? How far have we fallen? (An aside: If this is not the best reason for merit selection, then I have yet to figure one out.)

Ladov goes on to explain that it is incumbent on members of the legal profession to protect the independence of the judiciary.  At the same time, she urges the bar to criticize unethical conduct by judges.  She encourages lawyers to speak out about issues affecting and involving judges and the justice system, including Merit Selection:

You can talk to your elected official about the need for merit selection.  In fact, you can make it your personal campaign issue, something as personal and important as healthcare or tax reform.

Thanks to Chancellor Ladov for her support. We hope members of the bar will heed her call to action.

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Mar 30 2009

Calling for Merit Selection in Wisconsin

Wisconsin is in the midst of a heated Supreme Court race, but the Wisconsin State Journal has decided not to endorse a candidate for election to the bench. Instead in a strong editorial, the Journal explains it:

[E]ndorses a better method of choosing state Supreme Court justices — merit selection.

The selection of judges based on merit, by a nonpartisan committee, would:

• Reduce the role of money and politics in judicial selection.

• Avoid conflicts of interest that arise when justices are tied to campaign contributors who have interests in cases before the court.

• Improve Wisconsin’s ability to ensure its highest quality judges serve on its highest court.

• Restore public trust in impartial justice.

We certainly agree with the Journal’s assessment.  We hope the people of Pennsylvania will get the chance to determine whether they would prefer a Merit Selection system.

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Mar 27 2009

Indiana Bar President: Change the Way Judges are Selected

Thanks to the Indiana Law Blog for posting excerpts from Indiana State Bar Association President Bill Jonas’ pro-Merit Selection editorial. In an eloquently written piece, Jonas argues:

Now is the time for Hoosiers to speak out in favor of a uniform, non-partisan judicial selection method to insure judicial independence for all of Indiana.  If we succeed in this endeavor, we will have taken an important step toward “the more perfect union” that our forefathers envisioned.

Jonas cites the Caperton case as well as the rising costs of elections in nearby Ohio, Michigan and Illinois.  He then refers to two recent cases in Indiana that raise questions about the impartiality of judges.  He explains:

Indiana’s judges are the umpires on whom we rely to make the often close and difficult calls in disputes that can be the focus of intense public interest and passionate debate.  It is imperative that our umpires be free to make calls based on whether the ball is in the strike zone . . . without regard to who the pitcher is, who the batter is, or who the opposing managers are.

This makes good sense, and Jonas believes elections can no longer achieve this ideal. He urges adoption of  a Merit Selection system with a retention component.  We believe a Merit Selection system for Pennsylvania’s appellate courts will also accomplish what Jonas anticipates: “judges free to make rulings on the facts and the law, and not out fear or in search of favor.”

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Mar 26 2009

Tennessee Judges Praise Merit Selection System

Tennessee’s Triangle Business Journal reports that “The state’s 29 current appellate court judges are in agreement that Tennessee’s merit selection process should stand.”  If not renewed by the legislature this year, Tennessee’s Merit Selection system will expire.

The state’s appellate judges are concerned that if the system expires and is replaced by an elective system, money will poison the judicial selection process.  Justice William Koch “told [the Tennessee Business Roundtable] he is concerned about the effect that campaign money would have on judges’ impartiality, were the state to require judges to run for election.”

When judges express sincere concern about the impact of campaign contributions on judicial decision-making, it’s a clear signal that judges should not be in the fundraising business.  We hope Tennessee realizes this and maintains Merit Selection.  And we hope the people of Pennsylvania will get the opportunity to decide this issue for themselves.

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Mar 24 2009

Praising Merit Selection in Iowa

As regular readers know, we try to bring you stories about Merit Selection from all over.  Today, we want to share a letter to the editor of the Telegraph Herald in Dubuque, Iowa.  Chad Cox wrote in to praise the Merit Selection system.  His key point:

In Iowa, any applicant with superior professional qualifications will get consideration, regardless of political involvement or connections. These applicants need not raise funds, advertise or make campaign promises, all of which can compromise judicial independence and thereby erode public confidence in the judiciary.

The letter concludes with this thought: “Iowans can and should take pride in our system of merit selection.” We don’t think Pennsylvanians have the same pride in our judicial election system.  It’s time for a change.

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Mar 23 2009

Pennsylvania is Talking about Judges and Money

The hot topic in Pennsylvania is the effect of contributions to judicial campaigns. Two papers ran features on the issue this weekend.  The Wilkesbarre Times-Leader posed this question:

Two lawyers appear in court. One donated thousands to the judge’s campaign and the other gave nothing. Will they be treated the same?

Absolutely, say five of the seven elected Luzerne County judges who accepted campaign donations from lawyers.

But getting people to believe that is a problem, said Shira Goodman [of PMC].

The Times-Leader interviewed several sitting judges about campaing contributions from lawyers and law firms.  Although the judges explained that the contributions do not influence their decision-making in the court room, they acknowledged that as elections become more expensive and as public hostility to lawyers grows, things might have to change.  Judge Thomas Burke explained that those changes might include Merit Selection:

“If we reach the point where the perception is that lawyer contributions – or any outside contributions to judicial campaigns – pose an unfair advantage that will tilt the level playing field in favor of one side or another, then we likely have to consider alternatives to the present system.”

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review also examined the perception created by contributions to judicial campaigns.  According to Chief Justice Ronald Castille:

“It’s not a healthy situation. . . . I’ve seen those polls where the public thinks campaign contributions affect judges. It’s not healthy for the system. We want people to have confidence in the system.”

The article explained that there are no rules that outright prohibit a judge from hearing a case in which a lawyer or party contributed to the campaign.  PMC Executive Director Lynn Marks explained that this causes a fundamental problem: “When you go to court, you shouldn’t be worried whether your lawyer gave a campaign contribution.”

It is time to get judges out of the fundraising business.  Merit Selection can accomplish this. Chief Justice Castille favors Merit Selection.  It’s time to let the people of Pennsylvania weigh in.

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Mar 19 2009

ABA President Decries Judicial Elections

Published by under Judges,Opinion

The Birmingham News reports that American Bar Association President — and Alabama attorney — Tommy Wells is sharply criticizing judicial elections.  According to Wells, judicial elections “amount to little more than attempts at influence peddling.”

Wells speaks from experience. Alabama is one of the few states — like Pennsylvania — that elect all judges in partisan contests.  Last year, the race for one seat on the Alabama Supreme Court cost five million dollars.  Wells opined:

“The amount of money that was spent was obscene, and amounted to more than is spent in the whole state for legal services for the poor.”

Remember, much of this money comes from lawyers and entities who later litigate before the judges they helped elect.  It’s time to get judges out of the fundraising business.  Merit Selection would do just that.

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Mar 17 2009

Looking at the Money Trail in Luzerne County

Published by under Judges,Merit Selection

Right now, a major judicial scandal continues to unfold in Luzerne County, PA where two judges have pleaded guilty to federal charges stemming from their having allegedly taken money to divert many juvenile offenders to a specific detention facility.  Other court officials have also been implicated, and the investigation is ongoing. Earlier this week, the Times Leader examined the sources of campaign contributions to the two judges at the center of the scandal.

The report reveals some troubling information: Although one of the judges, Michael Conahan, claimed to be campaigning without taking money from lawyers, when he ran for retention ten years later, he retired all his original campaign debt in large part from contributions by lawyers. This despite his earlier pledge that:

“This will guarantee that there will not even be the chance that when I am hearing a case, my mind could in any way be clouded between the arguments of a lawyer who contributed to my campaign and perhaps an opposing one who didn’t.”

Conahan’s counterpart, Mark Ciavarella also is without campaign debt, due in large part to contributions by lawyers and law firms.

It’s no surprise that lawyers and law firms are big contributors to judicial elections, but it is of great concern to those who believe that perception is important.  Conahan himself identified the potential problems arising from lawyer contributions to judicial campaigns.  Recent surveys and studies make clear that the public is worried about the impact of campaign contributions on judicial decision-making.  Those worries undermine public confidence in the fairness of our courts.  And that’s dangerous for all of us.

The article concludes with a suggestion from some lawyers at a firm that contributed heavily to the Conahan campaign:

Representatives of [the firm] said lawyers are tapped for donations in many campaigns, not just judicial ones. The lawyers say a switch to merit selection of judges would eliminate the demand for contributions in expensive judicial races.

That makes sense — it’s time to get judges out of the fundraising business altogether.

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Mar 16 2009

Money and Talent

An editorial in the Commercial Appeal by Tennessee Bar Association President Buck Lewis makes a good case for why Merit Selection is the best way to select judges. He boils it down to two main reasons:  “money and talent.”

Mr. Lewis cites the rising cost of judicial elections across the country and the perception of the influence campaign contributions have on judicial decision-making as good reasons to keep Tennessee judges out of the fundraising business.

He also argues that Merit Selection opens up the judiciary to a more qualified candidate pool:

There are many fine lawyers who apply for judicial vacancies under Tennessee’s present system who would never subject themselves and their families to a statewide contested campaign which requires them to travel the state for months, raise millions, abandon their law practices, and be the subject of opponents’ attack ads.  Contested elections may be advantageous for lawyers who have statewide name recognition or those who heavily advertise on television. But for most lawyers, and in my view, for most of the lawyers who we would most want on our appellate courts, contested elections would present a tremendous barrier to entry.

Money and talent.  To us, these sound like good reasons to stick with  — or change to — Merit Selection.

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Mar 13 2009

Chief Justice of Texas Comes Out Strong for Merit Selection

Texas Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson authored a very persuasive op-ed in the Dallas News urging the adoption of Merit Selection.  His description of the electoral process and his attribution of his own electoral success to factors irrelevant to his qualifications to serve make a strong case for judicial selection reform:

My parents gave me a good ballot name. My beautiful wife and three handsome sons adorned political advertisements on network television. But these things tell you nothing about my intellect, integrity or temperament.

My success depended primarily on a straight-ticket partisan vote.

Chief Justice Jefferson describes the seemingly senseless distribution of the counties he won and lost, and attributes the results to party affiliation.

He joins his predecessors in calling for Merit Selection, and he offers a compelling argument for change:

We must eliminate cynicism, money and partisanship in judicial selection. . . .  For the foreseeable future, I will win elections not because I am best suited for the job, but in spite of my qualifications. When a judge’s victory is based on party over principle, money over merit, cynicism over the rule of law, voters lose.

Well put.

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