Archive for August, 2010

Aug 26 2010

"An Intelligent, Apolitical, Public Discussion"

An editorial in the Youngstown News (Ohio) calls for a meaningful public dialogue about whether to change to Merit Selection.  Citing the recent New Politics of Judicial Elections report, the editorial observes:

The issue of money and the courts is not new. . . .

But the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that threw open the floodgates to corporations and labor unions to contribute to political candidates is a game changer.

Can the public be assured the courts will remain fair and independent when money i

s flowing like water?

The editorial notes that in the past, Merit Selection has not passed in Ohio, but it argues that changed circumstances demand a new look.  Here is the call to action:

There is no doubt that the current money-based system of filling state supreme court seats has fed public cynicism and distrust of the judicial system. It’s time — again — for an intelligent, apolitical, public discussion.

That sounds like a very good prescription for Pennsylvania as well. We hope Pennsylvanians will have the chance to have such a discussion about Merit Selection of appellate court judges.

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Aug 24 2010

Pennsylvanians Shouldn't Have to Wait Anymore

An editorial in the Reading Eagle urges that it’s time to give Pennsylvanians the opportunity to vote on Merit Selection.   In a review of the report The New Politics of Judicial Selection, the editorial opens with these key points:

The Issue: A study reveals what we already knew: Judicial elections are becoming more expensive.

Our Opinion: It is time to switch to merit selection of Pennsylvania’s appellate court judges.

The editorial cites the rising costs of judicial elections and the increasing participation of special interests in those campaigns.  It agrees with the Professor James Sample (lead author of the New Politics report) that “‘We’re sort of playing with fire when you’re putting this much money into our courts.”

The editorial then reviews the pending Merit Selection legislation and notes that Governor Rendell and former

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Governors Ridge, Thornburgh and Schweiker recently joined together to support implementing Merit Selection for Pennsylvania’s appellate court judges.  The closing paragraphs are worth quoting in full:

According to a survey conducted by Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, 63 percent of the people in the commonwealth supported replacing the current system of electing judges, and 93 percent favored putting the issue to a statewide vote.

Nevertheless, the Legislature has been reluctant to even consider a change, which would take at least two years to implement because it would require a change in the state Constitution.

Why are the 253 members of the Legislature blocking the will of the people?

Despite growing support in the legislature and the dedication of our legislative sponsors, the Merit Selection legislation has not yet reached the floor of either House. We agree with the Reading Eagle that Pennsylvanians shouldn’t have to wait any more.

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Aug 23 2010

Independence at Risk

An editorial in the Scranton Times-Tribune blasts judicial elections and the political money games they have become:

Judges are supposed to represent only the law. Yet in Pennsylvania judicial candidates seek the favor and, increasingly, the money of politically interested individuals and organizations.

It’s not quite clear how a nonpartisan judiciary is supposed to spring from a partisan process.

This is a critical question: how is the public — and how are judges themselves — supposed to believe that judges are different from other elected officials when they get into office the very same way — th

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rough hard-fought, expensive partisan elections?  It has become increasingly difficult for the public to believe that judges really are impartial arbiters who treat all comers equally.  And this loss of public confidence weakens our courts.

The Times-Tribune endorses a different way of selecting judges — a system that would combine appointments with retention elections — as the only way to maintain judicial independence.  Merit Selection emphasizes qualifications, skills and experience in selecting judges and gets judges out of the fundraising business.  It is time for change.

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Aug 19 2010

"The River of Money"

An editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer identifies a major problem with judicial elections: money.  Citing the recent Report by Justice At Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice and the Institute on Money in State Politics, the editorial observes:

When it comes to spending money to elect state Supreme Court justices, Pennsylvania is No. 1.Unfortunately, this is not a top ranking to boast about. That’s because the river of money that flows into j

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udicial elections creates the perception for many that justice isn’t always blind.

Money and judicial selection just should not mix; simply put, judges should not be in the fundraising business.  Merit Selection takes money out of the process of choosing judges and focuses attention on what really matters: skills, qualifications, and a reputation for honesty, fairness and impartiality.  Pennsylvanians deserve a system they can be proud of and trust to produce fair, impartial judges.

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Aug 17 2010

Ohio paper: "Time to bring gavel down on judicial elections"

Published by under Merit Selection

The editorial board at the Toledo Blade is calling for the state to end judicial elections after a recent ruling issued by the Ohio Supreme Court that laid down new rules for judicial campaigns.

According to the ruling, judicial candidates in the state can now advertise their political party loyalties and may also directly solicit campaign contributions in specific situations.

Yet there’s a better way than elections for judges to come to the bench, the editorial says:

It’s long past time to bring the gavel down on judicial elections. It’s simply not reasonable to expect judges to act like

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politicians during elections, but not end up beholden to the party leaders and political donors who put them on the bench.

The editorial is right on. Judges should not be beholden to special interests, and the public confidence in the judicial system isn’t served when there is the perception that judges have constituents. The answer is Merit Selection, which ensures that judges don’t need to dabble in campaigning, fundraising and pandering to special interest groups.

Read the full editorial here.

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Aug 16 2010

New Report on Judicial Elections: Things are Getting Worse

Today, PMC partners Justice At Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute on Money in State Politics issued a new report analyzing the last decade of judicial elections entitled “The New
Politics of Judicial Elections: 2000-2009.”
Pennsylvania is prominently featured in the Report, which examines the explosion in fundraising and spending in these elections as well as the increasing participation of special
interests.

The Report notes that Pennsylvania ranks second in the nation for election spending during the decade.  In addition, Pennsylvania was home to the most expensive Supreme Court election in the nation during the 2007-08
cycle.  In that year, there were two vacancies on the Supreme Court. According to the Report, candidate and third-party spending totaled $10.3 million.  In 2009, as the report notes, the high spending trend continued in Pennsylvania, and we saw the most expensive single seat race in our history.

The Report certainly highlights the increasing importance of cold, hard cash in judicial elections and also reminds us that poll after poll demonstrates that the public — and judges as well — be

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lieve that campaign contributions influence judicial decision making.

But there is some cause for optimism.  The Report notes that reform efforts are making progress, and that Merit Selection is gaining ground in states throughout the nation.

The Report presents a cautionary tale — state judicial elections are getting much worse when measured by the factors that affect public confidence: money and special interest participation.  The public wants
fair and impartial courts. Money is widely viewed as a corrupting influence and it undermines the public’s confidence in our courts and judiciary.  There is a clear solution: get money out of the process of
choosing judges. The most effective way to do that is Merit Selection.

Here are the links to the Report:

Full Report

Letter From Justice Sandra Day O’Connor

Executive Summary

State Profiles, 2000-2009

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Aug 13 2010

New Iowa group to defend state's merit selection

Published by under Merit Selection

A new non-profit bipartisan group called Iowans for Fair & Impartial Courts has formed to defend Iowa’s court system against campaigns attempting to unseat three Iowa Supreme Court Justices in upcoming retention elections.

The group will advocate for Iowa’s current judicial system of merit selection, which helps take judges out of the business of politics and campaign fundraising.

The group’s leaders include Scott Brennan, a former state Democratic Party chairman; former Republican National Committeeman Steve Roberts, and Bob Rafterty, who had served as chief of staff for former Governor Terry Bransted.

The group says that though they will not be involved in any particular campaign, they are partially reacting to the criticism of a recent decision in the state that allowed for gay marriage and the resultant targeting of judges standing for retent

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ion.

A brochure from the group reads:

If judges are defeated merely as a result of randomness or vindictiveness, it may lead to judges forming campaign committees in the future to make their cases.

The group is right: Judges need to be able to make difficult decisions on controversial issues without the possible sway of political groups, big businesses or other special interests. Retention elections should be based on the judge’s entire tenure on the bench, including their behavior and treatment of litigants and jurors.

The Iowa State Bar Association backs the new group.

Read an article about the new group from the Mason City Globe Gazette here and Gavel Grab’s coverage here.

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Aug 10 2010

Like Alabama, PA shouldn't have to "squint" to see justice

Published by under Merit Selection

“Justice is not blind in Alabama,” writes John Archibald in the Birmingham News, “But Alabama has to squint to see justice.”

He continues:

Alabama’s Supreme Court justices have been bought and sold for years, by trial lawyers on one side and big business on the other. Every four years we turn judges into money-raising, ideology-spitting politicians. And then we expect them to forget about it.

Alabama’s Supreme Court races have led the nation in the amount of money spent on the campaigns, costing $40 million since 2000.

As if this weren’t bad enough, Archibold goes on to cite a s

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tring of recent judicial scandals in the state that leads him to the inevitable conclusion:

Alabama desperately needs to reassess the way it picks judges.

He’s right. Like Alabama, the campaign spending for Pennsylvania appellate court races is spiraling out of control. In the last Pennsylvania Supreme Court race the two major candidates spent $4.7 million combined – much of it coming from lawyers, firms and parties who appear before the justices.

This creates the appearance that judges are beholden to special interests. Judges should not have constituents, and people should not be given any reason to believe that justice is for sale. Merit selection is a way to combat this.

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Aug 09 2010

Chief Justice against judicial elections

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille recently told the Pennsylvania Prothonotaries’ and Clerks of Courts’ Association that there is no reason for these positions to be elected. “The way I see it, it should be a professional person’s job, and they should be answerable to the court system.”

The remark sparked an article in Philadelphia’s The Bulletin on Chief Justice Castille’s views regarding merit selection for judges. The justice is in favor of abolishing the current system of judicial elections for appellate level judges, including the Supreme Court. The Bulletin talked to Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts Deputy Director Shira Goodman.

It’s not new. If you look back, [Justice Castille] talked about this for a long time. He’s talked about the electoral process not being the way for many years.

Castille is one of many high-profile government officials, as well as

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reform groups and regular citizens, who have called for an end to judicial elections. Governor Rendell has spoken out on multiple occasions about the need to switch to a merit-based selection process for the appellate bench. Said the governor’s press secretary Gary Tuma,

The governor has on several occasions, here in his second term, suggested that we should move to a judicial merit selection instead of electing them in the polls. The important thing is to free justices from this requirement of raising money from the legal community, and, in some cases, some people who are going to be appearing in front of them in court.

The call for merit may become even greater due to the recent turmoil on the Supreme Court, a focus of the Bulletin article. Justice Joan Orie Melvin is currently undergoing investigation for improperly using taxpayer money and government resources for her recent campaign. The Chief Justice has also been subject to attacks that he mishandled the proposed Philadelphia Family Court project.

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Aug 04 2010

Missouri to keep Merit Selection

Published by under Merit Selection

Missouri will keep their merit selection system for selecting judges after a petition aimed at replacing the merit system with competitive partisan elections failed to get enough signatures to be placed on the November ballot.

Ken Morley, an adviser to the Missourians for Fair and Impartial Courts Action Fund, a group that fought the petition, said:

This cynical attempt to inject special interests into Missouri’s courtrooms was overwhelmingly rejected by the voters. This monumental failure by those wishing to politicize our courts sends a strong message that Missourians want to keep our system of justice fair and impartial.

In 19

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40 Missouri became the first state to adopt merit selection of judges in lieu of elections, and the citizens of the state have again realized that Merit Selection is the best way to ensure a fair and impartial system free of partisan politics and fundraising.

As the website of Missourians for Fair and Impartial Courts Action Fund reads:

As hard-working Missourians, we need to support a legal system that is not influenced by political pressure or special interests. Over the last 70 years, Missouri has become the model for a fair and impartial court system.

Read the Gavel Grab post here.

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