Last Friday the New York Times ran an editorial written by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, extolling the advantages of merit selection over judicial elections for state judges. O’Connor writes that while the lifetime appointment feature of the federal system leaves citizens with little redress against an errant judge, and judicial elections make judges too vulnerable to the ever-shifting winds of majority opinion, a merit selection system provides for a delicate balance between the two. The combination of the nonpartisan citizens nominating commission and a later yes/no retention vote for a sitting judge effectively “protects the impartiality of the judiciary without sacrificing accountability.”
State courts resolve the most important legal matters in our lives, including child custody cases, settlement of estates, business-contract disputes, traffic offenses, drunken-driving charges, most criminal offenses and most foreclosures. More than 100 million cases are filed in state courts each year.
When you enter one of these courtrooms, the last thing you want to worry about is wh
ether the judge is more accountable to a campaign contributor or an ideological group than to the law.
In Pennsylvania, such concerns may arise more often than not. A recent study showed that in 2008-09, over sixty percent of the cases before the PA Supreme Court involved a litigant, lawyer, or law firm that had previously donated to at least one justice on the bench.
And as the cost of judicial campaigns continues to rise to stratospheric heights, these donations are crucial to a prospective judge’s campaign:
This year, 16 states will hold contested elections for seats on their highest courts, and candidates will raise and spend millions of dollars for their campaigns. In 2008 alone, nearly $20 million was spent on TV advertising in contested elections for 26 state supreme court seats.
Again, Pennsylvanians can relate. The cost of the 2009 Supreme Court election between now Justice Joan Orie Melvin and Superior Court Judge Jack Panella reached $4.7 million.
There is legislation pending in Harrisburg that would enable voters to decide for themselves how they would like their state appellate judges to be selected. Pennsylvanians should be afforded the opportunity to choose merit.