FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Shira Goodman/Lynn Marks
Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts and PMCAction
(o) 215-569-1150; (m) 215-680-1163
U.S. Supreme Court Lets the Money Roll In to Judicial Elections
Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts and PMCAction explain how new campaign finance decision will bring more money into statewide judicial elections
PHILADELPHIA (January 21, 2010) – Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts (PMC) and PMCAction today predicted that the United States Supreme Court’s long-awaited decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission will open the floodgates to direct corporate and union spending in statewide judicial elections. The decision, focusing primarily on the right to free speech, grants corporations and unions a constitutional right to make independent expenditures in elections directly from their corporate coffers, without the need to establish separate political action committees to fundraise and spend money. The decision invalidates the laws of Pennsylvania and 21 other states prohibiting such independent campaign expenditures. Shira Goodman, Deputy Director of PMC and PMCAction, explained, “It’s like the Supreme Court said ‘let the money roll in.’”
“But,” explained Goodman, “given Pennsylvania’s experience in the 2009 Supreme Court election, more money spent on getting judges on the bench is the last thing we need.” According to a recent report by PMC, that election cost at least $4.5 million dollars, and when political party spending is factored in, likely several million more.
The public has been increasingly concerned about the role of money in judicial elections, worrying that justice might be for sale to the biggest campaign contributor or spender. Today’s decision will only intensify those concerns by making it easier for corporations and unions that frequently litigate in the state courts to participate in electing the judges who will decide their cases. As Justice Stevens noted in his dissent (quoting the Justice At Stake amicus brief PMC joined), “At a time when concerns about the conduct of judicial elections have reached a fever pitch . . . the Court today unleashes the floodgates of corporate and union general treasury spending in these races.”
In recent years, judicial elections have become more like elections for other public offices, despite the fact that judges are different from legislators and executive officers. Electing judges in expensive, partisan contests complete with negative ads, third-party spending, mass media campaigns and debates over “hot button” issues, makes it difficult to remember that judges are sworn to be impartial arbiters of the law. Instead, people worry that popular opinion, personal bias, and the desire to please campaign contributors or supporters will sway judicial decision-making. This is unacceptable, but it is the natural by-product of our electoral system. Justice Kennedy, writing for the 5-4 majority, discounted arguments that campaign contributions and expenditures create the appearance of influence and would “cause the electorate to lose faith in this democracy.” However, he failed to consider that the appearance of influence and access to judges already has been shown to cause voters to lose faith in our court system.
“There is a simple solution,” said Goodman. “Change the way we select appellate court judges.” Merit Selection is a hybrid system that combines the best features of appointive and elective systems and adds a new component – an independent, bipartisan citizens’ nominating commission to screen and evaluate potential candidates for the bench. The Governor nominates a candidate from the nominating commission’s list of the most qualified, and that candidate is subject to Senate confirmation. After an initial four-year term (and every ten years thereafter), a judge would stand before the public in a nonpartisan yes/no retention election.
Bills are currently pending in the Pennsylvania legislature to implement a Merit Selection system for the three state-wide appellate courts. Amending the constitution requires the legislature to pass the bills in two successive sessions. Then, the people of Pennsylvanian would vote in a referendum on whether to change the way we select appellate judges.
As noted in the amicus brief in which PMC joined, “Courts can only be impartial if they are independent. To ensure due process, judges must be able to make decisions without looking over their shoulder at wealthy donors [and supporters] whose cases they must decide.” The Supreme Court today made that more difficult. Pennsylvanians have the opportunity to make it much easier: change the way our appellate judges reach the bench. “PMC and PMCAction believe it’s time to let the people decide.”
Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working to promote the reform of Pennsylvania’s judicial system. www.pmconline.org. PMCAction is an affiliated nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that lobbies for court reform initiatives. www. pmcaction.org. Blog: www.JudgesOnMerit.org.