Archive for August, 2009

Aug 28 2009

Merit Selection Envy

Immediate Past President of the American Bar Association H. Thomas Wells confesses that he suffers from “Merit Selection Envy.”  The Chatanooga Times Free Press reports that Wells explained:

“I will tell you from a personal standpoint that those of us in Alabama who have partisan elections of judges look at Tennessee with a great deal of envy with how you select your Supreme Court judges through a merit selection plan. I certainly hope you don’t do away with it.”

Like Mr. Wells, we live in a state that elects all judges in partisan elections. So, we too must admit to Merit Selection Envy.  We think the cure would be a full dialogue that allows the people of Pennsylvania to decide whether we should change the way we select appellate judges.

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Aug 27 2009

People Are Talking About Merit Selection

Dialogue and debate are critical when  important decisions are at stake.  That’s why it’s heartening to learn that people are talking about Merit Selection in different forums in several states.  This includes Pennsylvania, where the Courts Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee will soon be holding hearings on Merit Selection.

But Pennsylvania is not alone.  In West Virginia, the Independent Commission on Judicial Reform appointed by Governor Joe Manchin is hosting three public hearings, including one focused on Merit Selection.  As the West Virginia Record reports, Governor Manchin responded favorably to the announcement of the hearings:

Our judicial system is too important, not to act without listening to public concerns. . . . I thank the commission’s members for taking time out of their daily schedules to listen to West Virginians’ suggestions and ideas.

Texans, too, are talking about Merit Selection.  As reported in an op-ed in the Lake County Sun, the Caperton decision is renewing attention to the problems inherent in electing judges:

[Former Chief Justice] Phillips said the recent Supreme Court ruling should begin anew a national debate on how judges are chosen. [Chief Justice] Jefferson’s view was that the decision challenged Texans to do more to eliminate the perception that cash campaign contributions influence court decisions.

Op-ed author Willis Webb urges “Let the debate begin. . . again.”

We are looking forward to productive dialogue and debate in Pennsylvania.  The most important thing is to provide the opportunity for the public to weigh in on the critical question of how we select our appellate judges.

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Aug 24 2009

Merit Selection Hearing Update

Published by under Merit Selection News

We reported this morning that the Courts Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee will be holding hearings on Merit Selection.  We have just learned that due to the ongoing work on the budget, the Philadelphia hearing (initially scheduled for September 2) will be postponed until October.  At this time, the Pittsburgh hearing is still scheduled for Wednesday September 9 at 10:00 am.  Written testimony may be submitted to the Committee through Rep. Don Walko’s office until September 2:

Hon. Don Walko
121 Irvis Office Building
PO Box 202020
Harrisburg, PA 17120-2020
(717) 787-5470
Fax: (717) 783-0407

Testimony may be submitted electronically care of Louise Koppenheffer (LKoppenheffer@pahouse.net).

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Aug 24 2009

Merit Selection On the Agenda in Pennsylvania

Published by under Merit Selection News

We are pleased to report that the Subcommittee on Courts of the House Judiciary Committee will be holding two hearings on the pending legislation to amend the constitution to implement Merit Selection for the appellate courts.  We thank Representative Don Walko, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Courts, for scheduling hearings in Pennsylvania and giving the people an opportunity to discuss this important issue.

The Philadelphia hearing will be Wednesday September 2 at 10:00 am in Courtoom 676 in City Hall.

The Pittsburgh hearing will be held Wednesday September 9 at 10:00 am in Room 330 of the Frick Building, 437 Grant Street.

The hearings are open to the public, and we will offer detailed coverage on our blog, including links to testimony submitted.

The hearings are an important first step in the critical process of allowing the people of Pennsylvania to decide whether to change the way we select appellate court judges.

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Aug 20 2009

A Closer Look at Citizens United

Published by under Judges,News

We recently reported that PMC joined Justice At Stake and 19 other partners in filing an amicus brief in the Citizens United case.  As we noted, this campaign finance case likely will have important implications for the future of judicial elections.  This issue — particularly the poisonous influence of money in judicial elections — was the focus of our amicus brief.  Gavel Grab offers in-depth coverage of the case, including a three-part series on briefs filed in this case.

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Aug 18 2009

North Carolina Judge: No Money for Me

The Star News of Wilmington, North Carolina reports that Superior Court (trial level court in North Carolina) Judge Jay Hockenbury will run for reelection next year but will not accept campaign contributions:

The judge, a 61-year-old Republican in a mostly Democratic district, said contributions from attorneys, developers or others with special interests could give the impression of influence over a judicial decision. Hockenbury said it’s never been an issue, nor does he want it to be.

Although the judge did raise money in his previous campaigns, he has decided not to this time around.  It’s interesting to note that in his initial election, Judge Hockenbury raised about $22,000.  So, we’re not talking about Caperton-size contributions here.  But still, the judge recognized that the role of money in judicial elections creates dangerous perceptions.

Judge Hockenbury has chosen one solution to the problem of money in judicial elections. But we think a broader, systemic solution that would get judges out of the fundraising business altogether would be even better.

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Aug 17 2009

The Money is “Corrosive”

Ohio Chief Justice Thomas Moyer spoke out strongly against the poisonous influence of money in judicial elections during a recent address to the Columbus Metropolitan Club.  Dispatch Politics, a division of the Columbus Dispatch, reports that Chief Justice Moyer urged: “‘We must reduce the role of fundraising in judicial campaigns . . . It’s corrosive.'”

He further noted that the money problem undermines confidence in the judiciary and courts across the board, noting that “polls have shown that most people — and even many judges — believe that rulings are influenced by campaign contributions.” This is not new information, but when the Chief Justice takes note of this data, people should listen carefully.

Chief Justice Moyer promoted a Merit Selection system in which the Governor selects a candidate from a field of three recommended by a nominating commission.  Judges selected this way would stand in uncontested retention elections.

We hope that people in Ohio — and Pennsylvania — will heed Chief Justice Moyer’s call for reform.

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Aug 13 2009

Some Strong Words for the Pennsylvania Judicial System

Paul Capenter of the Allentown Morning Call devoted yesterday’s column to a recap of the judicial scandals in Luzerne County.  Carpenter has strong words for the Pennsylvania judicial system and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in particular:

The appellate system is a comedy routine over which presides the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which, among its other scandals, did everything but back-flips to accommodate the crimes of two Luzerne County judges, who took $2.6 million in payoffs to throw hundreds of juveniles into a commercial juvie jail on flimsy grounds.

Carpenter updates his readers on the continuing investigation in Luzerne County and how various other cases are getting reexamined.  He concludes with a thought about one factor contributing to problems in the judicial system — judicial elections:

Someday, all these exciting episodes will end, probably when Pennsylvania enacts merit selection for appellate court judges — instead of letting party bosses pick judicial candidates. Then we’ll have to go back to watching Jerry Springer.

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Aug 11 2009

“What Should be Unacceptable is the Election of Judges”

Published by under Judges,Opinion

Former federal judge H. Lee Sarokin offers a thought-provoking blog post on the Huffington Post entitled, “When Does a Campaign Contribution Become a Bribe?”  Judge Sarokin opens with this striking image:

Can you imagine a lawyer or litigant walking up to the bench in the middle of a trial and handing the judge a check as a campaign contribution! Is it any less unseemly if the check was delivered a week or a month before?

He then continues to explain the Caperton decision and the lack of any rule explaining how high a campaign contribution must be to be deemed “too high.”  Judge Sarokin seems to agree with us that it’s not the amount of the donation, it’s the very fact of the donation that is problematic.  He sums this up with an indictment of the judicial election system:

What should be unacceptable is the election of judges. 39 of the states elect judges. Contributions to judicial campaigns now total in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The campaigns themselves have become political, demeaning and adversarial. As in any election, there are those who contribute merely to advance the candidacy of someone in whom they believe. But for many there is an expectation of a quid pro quo. How else does one explain contributions to both of two rival candidates?

Judge Sarokin closes by enumerating additional problems with elections, including the lack of relevant information available to voters and the fact that judicial elections become popularity contests, rather than exercises to find the most qualified judges:

Judges should not be treated like American Idol contestants. One of the principal roles of the judiciary is to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority. Election of judges reverses that noble goal and demeans the judiciary. The influence of money should have no place in our judicial system.

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Aug 10 2009

“A System of IOUs”

Attorney Peter Vaira’s op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer details recent troubles plaguing Pennsylvania’s court system and offers some thoughts on causation:

Is this Huey Long’s Louisiana? What is behind these events? Part of the answer is Pennsylvania’s county government system. Each county has its own courts, its own court rules, and often its own unwritten procedures. Nor does the state attorney general have any control over county prosecutors.

Another problem is that all judges run for election. This creates a system of subtle (and often not-so-subtle) IOUs, especially at the county-court level.

All of this can foster localized criminal justice and make the courts insiders’ forums.

Vaira’s tag that the judicial election system is “a system of ious” echoes increasing public concern about the influence campaign contributions have on judges.  Increasingly, the public has come to believe that we have a system in which justice may be “for sale” to campaign contributors.

This is simply an unacceptable situation.  To restore public confidence in our courts and judiciary, we must get judges out of the fundraising business.

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