The problems with Pennsylvania’s judicial elections took a national spotlight this week. The Friday night primetime PBS news show “Bill Moyers Journal” was devoted this past week to the question we’ve been asking for a long time:
How would you feel if you were in court and knew that the opposing lawyer [or party] had contributed money to the judge’s campaign fund?
The show’s response to the question posed sends a grave warning to the citizens of Pennsylvania and of other states that elect judges:
This is not an improbable hypothetical question, but could be a commonplace occurrence in the . . states where judges must raise money to campaign for their seats — often from people with business before the court.
Though many states have elected judges since their founding, in the past 30 years, judicial elections have morphed from low-key affairs to big money campaigns. From 1999-2008, judicial candidates raised $200.4 million, more than double the $85.4 million raised in the previous decade (1989-1998).
Because of the costs of running such a campaign, critics contend that judges have had to become politicians and fundraisers rather than jurists.
Friday’s show discusses the expected impact the recent Citizens United decision will have on judicial elections, and starts with a re-airing of the jaw-dropping 1999 investigation that focused on “justice for sale” in 3 states, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Texas. In what can best be described as tragic irony, the 1999 show began in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, ground-zero for the infamous Luzerne County courthouse scandal, and details the tortuous fundraising and campaign strategizing required to get a seat on the Luzerne County bench.
One of the judges whose campaign for election was profiled, Peter Paul Olszewski, was not retained for another term in the 2009 retention election, in large part because of his perceived association with Michael Conahan, now charged with masterminding the cash-for-kids scandal. The 1999 segment quoted a candidate who ended up losing her election:
VIRGINIA MURTHA COWLEY: What it has become is the ability to buy the seat. If you can- if you have a half a million dollars, you can basically go out there and get your name on T.V. so many times that you will have bought yourself a job for the rest of your life.
BILL MOYERS: True enough, the winners for the two open seats are the candidates who raised the most money and made the most expensive T.V. commercials. It’s a system that disturbs even the winning media consultant.
This system surely can only further erode the confidence of Luzerne County and Pennsylvania citizens who have seen first-hand the corrosive influence of money on judicial conduct.
The full transcript of Friday’s show is available in three parts, here, here and here. The latest numbers in Pennsylvania, which the show’s website attributed to Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, reflect that a record amount of money was spent on the latest race for a seat on the Commonwealth’s highest court.
The show helps make apparent why electing judges is so problematic: unlike other public officials, judges have to resolve disputes between parties on a daily basis. The expectation is that the judges will be completely impartial and fair to both sides. But when they are forced to raise money to get their seats, and when that money inevitably comes in from the very parties that appear before those judges, the public has a hard time believing that the justice being delivered is not influenced by that money.
The solution other states have found, that we believe Pennsylvania needs to implement, is to select judges based on merit, not fundraising abilities or other factors unrelated to a candidate’s qualifications as an impartial jurist.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think that [Justice O’Connor’s] idea of merit selection for judges, that somehow the governors of the state, with the help of disinterested parties, would pick a group of candidates for the State Supreme Court, do you think merit selection is viable?
JEFFREY TOOBIN: Yeah. And it works well in a lot of states. . . . Nothing’s perfect. But when you have bipartisan groups of people, screenings, or even governors alone picking judges, it almost invariably produces a better, fairer, more qualified, less partisan judiciary than when voters do it.
The problem is not that voters can’t make good decisions; it’s that the process of electing judges is a system that values fundraising and campaigning above qualifiscations. And in that kind of system, it’s very hard to cut through the rhetoric and soundbytes to get the information you need to make a good decision.
Tags: Bill Moyers
, Citizens United
, Jeffrey Toobin
, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor
, Luzerne County