Archive for February, 2011

Feb 25 2011

Judges Work for the People

In an op-ed in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, PMC’s Lynn Marks and Shira Goodman argue that in the wake of the Luzerne County scandal, there remains a fundamental question for Pennsylvania to answer:

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What does it mean to be a judge?The answer should be simple: A judge is a public servant sworn to render judgment in legal cases without regard to self-interest, personal bias, public opinion, or political pressure.

Lately, this fundamental proposition has been overshadowed. But we must demand that it be followed by all Pennsylvania justices and judges, and any judicial behavior falling short of it must not be tolerated.

Marks and Goodman argue that distinctions between what is criminal and what is unethical hold little meaning when it comes to judges, because unethical judicial behavior has the potential to be as harmful as criminal behavior.  They further explain that something has been missing in the aftermath of the scandal, something that may seem obvious, but that needs saying:

There should be an unequivocal official statement that what the former judges did was an example of judicial misconduct of the highest order. It should be made clear to all Pennsylvanians that these men violated almost every rule governing the behavior of the state’s judges.

The authors follow this with a list of ethical constraints on judicial behavior in an effort to restate some basic truths about what Pennsylvanians should be able to expect of their judges.  The op-ed closes with a strong statement about the judicial role:

At its core, kids-for-cash was about judges ignoring who they worked for: the people. These judges abused the power with which the public entrusted them, using it to enrich themselves and their friends.

This is the polar opposite of what it means to be a judge. It must never be allowed to happen again.

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Feb 23 2011

North Carolina Voters Wary of Courtroom Cash

Published by under Judges,News,Our Perspective

A new public opinion poll in North Carolina show just how corrosive judicial elections are to public confidence in a fair and impartial judiciary. The poll, which was conducted by the North Carolina Center for Voter Education, and our friends at the Justice at Stake Campaign, ” finds that 94 percent of North Carolina voters believe campaign contributions have some sway on a judge’s decision, including 43 percent who say campaign donations can greatly affect a ruling.”

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“Trust in the courts is eroded when judges have to dial for dollars from parties who appear before them,” said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake, and we couldn’t agree more. Poll after poll after poll has shown that the public is convinced that the decisions of elected judges are influenced by campaign donations.

States have tried several ways to combat this perception. North Carolina has a first-in-the-nation system of public financing that allows judicial candidates (who can raise a small initial fund) to run for the bench without having to assemble huge campaign warchests. Recently, court rules in New York were modified to prevent court administrators from assigning a case to a judge if any of the lawyers or participants in the case donated $2,500 or more in the previous two years.

Our opinion is that the best way to restore trust in the impartiality of Pennsylvania’s appellate courts is to relieve our appellate court judges and justices of the burden of campaign financing in the first place. If campaign donations don’t play a role in putting appellate judges on the bench, then the public doesn’t have to wonder if those donations had an influence on the way those judges rule. That’s why we believe Merit Selection is a superior solution.

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Feb 18 2011

Take Back Our Courthouses

Published by under Judges,Resources

PMC issued the following press release following the announcement of the jury’s verdict in the federal corruption trial of former Luzerne County judge Mark Ciavarella:

Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts (PMC), reacting to the federal jury’s verdict in the trial of former Luzerne County judge Mark Ciavarella, urged the public to “Take back our courthouses.”
Executive Director Lynn A. Marks explained that “Courthouses belong to the people. Judges, court staff, and attorneys are there to serve the system, not to manipulate it for personal gain.” Tragically, this fundamental proposition was completely turned upside down in Luzerne County.

Deputy Director Shira Goodman explained that the public must now act to ensure that the lessons from the Luzerne County scandal will resonate across the Commonwealth. “It reminds us all of our own responsibility for our institutions of government and teaches that when something looks off, we must ask questions.”

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PMC encourages the people of Pennsylvania to continue to question how this scandal was allowed to be perpetrated, and how safeguards in the justice system failed to prevent, or at least catch the problems, before the rights of innumerable children and their families were violated. It is time to implement changes that will forestall such abuses of power in the future. PMC urges that “We, the public, must call on our leaders in the Governor’s office, the legislature and the Supreme Court to make sure this happens.”

Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts is a statewide, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working to promote the reform of Pennsylvania’s judicial system.

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Feb 17 2011

Alabama Courts, Vegas Style

An editorial in yesterday’s Anniston Star compares Alabama’s costly Supreme Court elections to “a figurative walk down the Las Vegas strip: All lights, all flash — and all about money.”

The reputation of this state’s Supreme Court elections is solidified thanks to election cycle after election cycle of exorbitant races that muddy the line between modern campaigning and the quest for impartial courts unburdened by deep-pocketed special interests. Rough partisan campaigns that turn judicial candidates into often-unwilling politicians are the norm.

It’s a problem we’re familiar with in Pennsylvania. In 2009, during the last race for an open seat on our state Supreme Court, the two major candidates spent a combined $4.7 million – much of it donated by lawyers, law firms and parties who regularly appear before the justices.

The editors of the Star recognize that there is a solution, a system that gets judges out of the business of raising campaign cash and stumping for votes. It’s a suggestion that regular readers should find familiar.

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Alabama would be better served by a Supreme Court that used some form of appointment/retention system in which judges are placed on the bench for their merits, not their party affiliations, and then retained by voters if their performance is worthy.

Well said.

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Feb 16 2011

Where Did that Campaign Money Go?

We didn’t need any more evidence that the role of money in judicial elections is a big problem.  Surveys consistently show that at least 75% of people believe that campaign contributions affect judicial decision-making in the courtroom.  Those numbers are likely to rise because, as the Philadelphia Inquirer reports, yesterday’s cross examination of former Luzerne County President Judge Mark Ciavarella provided even more damning proof of the problem.

Ciavarella admitted that he kept for his personal use thousands of dollars in cash that had been contributed to his retention election campaign.  This was illegal, as campaign funds may not be appropriated for personal use.  The admission of this further illegal conduct was made in an attempt to demonstrate that he had other sources of cash aside from the alleged kickbacks he took in exchange for sentencing juveniles to serve time in private detention facilities.  Whether that will convince the jury remains to be seen.

But it demonstrates the dangers inherent in the expensive judicial electoral system.  It is almost unthinkable that a sitting judge would keep cash – likely donated by attorneys and others who frequently appeared in the judge’s courtroom – for his personal use.  Still more inconceivable, this violation was not disovered by the authorities – this was an admission freely made as part of his defense to even more serious charges.  How can this be?

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Self-policing is not enough; campaign finance rules are tougher for judicial campaigns.  For example, judges are not permitted to personally solicit campaign contributions. But if the rules aren’t enforced, there’s no point to having them.

Many judges claim that in strict compliance with the spirit of the rules, they don’t even read the lists of donors and are unaware of who contributed to their campaign and in what amount. How is the public to believe this, especially in the face of evidence that a judge was able to keep and use campaign cash donations? And once this fallacy is removed, how is an already very skeptical public to believe that campaign contributions really have no impact on judicial decision-making?

There is a simple solution. Get judges out of the fundraising business and get money out of the process for selecting judges. Merit Selection is the answer.

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Feb 15 2011

Republican State Committee Announces Judicial Endorsements

Published by under Judges,News

At a February 12th meeting in Harrisburg, Republican State Committee members endorsed candidates for open seats on two statewide appellate court.  Bucks County lawyer Anne Covey was the GOP committee’s choice for an opening on the Commonwealth Court; former Cumberland County Republican Committee Chairman Vic Stabile received an endorsement for a seat on the Superior Court. Both candidates were rated as “Recommended” by the Judicial Evaluation Commission of the Pennsylvania Bar Association.

Philadelphia County Judges Paula Patrick and Paul Panepinto were also nominated for the open Superior Court seat, but neither candidate was able to garner enough support to win the party endorsement. Both judges indicated that they planned to stay on the ballot.

Current Judge Johnny Butler, who was appointed to the Commonwealth Court by Governor Ed Rendell, has told party leaders that he won’t run in the primary.

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The endorsements came a week after the Democratic State Committee announced its judicial endorsements.

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Feb 15 2011

Wisconsin Predicts Low Turnout In Primary

Published by under Judges,News

The polls are open in Wisconsin, but the predictions for voter turnout are grim. According to an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a vote that will determine who will be on the ballot for a spot on the state Supreme Court in April could be decided by 1/10th of the eligible voters. Four people are running for that seat, including incumbent Justice David Prosser. Because of the way Wisconsin’s judicial primaries work, Prosser could fail to make the general election ballot if today’s vote doesn’t go well for him.

Supporters of judicial elections like to talk about the will of the people. Yet, despite skyrocketing campaign spending, judicial elections traditionally fail to muster much interest among voters. Can an election that could remove an incumbent justice at the whim of 10% of the voters really be said to accurately reflect the will of the whole? Or is it more accurate to say that it measures which candidate raised campaign contributions and made political connections most effectively?

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Feb 14 2011

New York Court Rule Addresses Problem of Campaign Donors as Litigants

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The New York Times, the New York Law Journal, and the ABA Journal report that New York is taking on the issue of money and its influence in trial courts. New York’s Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman will announce a new state court rule on Tuesday in his 2011 State of the Judiciary address.

The new rule prevents court administrators from assigning a case to a judge if any of the lawyers or participants in the case donated $2,500 or more in the previous two years. The threshold amount for firms making donations is $3,500. The rule takes the recusal decision out of judges hands, and creates a system where major donors never appear before the judges they’ve supported. Court officials plan to use a computer system to compare the names of individuals involved in cases with names listed in public records of contributors.

In New York, judges on the highest courts are appointed. However, the judges that are elected are open to the dangers posed by campaigning and fundraising. In addition, there have been allegations that ties between political consultants in judicial races and political organizations have resulted in the ability to buy a judgeship for the price of consultant fees. Such influence and allegations taint the public’s confidence in fair and impartial courts. Judge Lippman acknowledged this, saying: “Nothing could be more important for the judiciary than to have the public see that we’re neutral arbiters of disputes. If we don’t have that, we don’t have anything.”

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Feb 09 2011

PMC’s Shira Goodman on WILK Radio

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Shira Goodman, Deputy Director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, will make an appearance on WILK Newsradio, 103.1 FM, at 4:05 EST this afternoon. She’ll discuss state policy about gifts to judges, and the corruption trial of former Luzerne County judge Mark Ciavarella, with host Steve Corbett.

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Feb 09 2011

Open Seats on the Intermediate Appellate Courts Create Election Speculation

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This year, there is one seat open on both the Superior and Commonwealth courts. Those who wish to run in the May primary must wait until February 17 to circulate nominating petitions, and they have until March 8 to gather the 1,000 voter signatures that they need.

Leaders of the state Democratic Party met in Hershey on Saturday to choose which potential candidates to endorse. For the Superior Court seat, the Democratic State Committee chose to support Allegheny County Judge David N. Wecht over Allegheny County Judge Robert J. Colville. Both judges received a “highly recommended” rating from the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Judicial Evaluation Commission. Colville announced that he will withdraw from the race as a result. The party endorsed Kathryn Boockvar, a Doylestown lawyer, for the Commonwealth Court seat. The PBA’s JEC gave Boockvar a “recommended” rating, noting that despite her limited appellate experience she: “possesses the legal ability, experience, integrity and temperament to perform satisfactorily as a judge of the Commonwealth Court.” Other prospective candidates are Pittsburgh lawyer Barbara Behrend Ernsberger and Scranton lawyer Todd Eagen, neither of whom had been rated by the PBA’s JEC yet.

The Republican State Committee is set to meet in Harrisburg on February 12 to choose its endorsements.  Harrisburg lawyer Vic Stabile and Philadelphia Judges Paul P. Panepinto and Paula Patrick have indicated an interest in running for the Superior Court seat. The PBA’s JEC rated Panepinto “highly recommended” and Stabile and Patrick “recommended.” The potential candidates for the Commonwealth Court seat are Commonwealth Court Judge Johnny Butler and New Hope lawyer Anne E. Covey. Butler was appointed by Rendell to complete his predecessor’s term and has received a “highly recommended” rating from the PBA’s JEC. However, there has been some concern expressed by GOP leaders that he would have to step down before the end of his 10 year term when he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70. Covey received a “recommended” rating from the PBA’s JEC.

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