Archive for September, 2011

Sep 30 2011

Twisting judicial arms to support party politics

Philadelphia’s Democratic Party invited 27 city judges to a breakfast this week, at which each judge was asked to contribute $10,000 to assure party support in retention elections, according to an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The article reports that, according to witnesses, the request was accompanied by a warning indicating that party support might be cut if a judge failed to make the requested contribution.

This is a prime example of how money and politics pollute the process of electing judges, so that only those candidates who have sufficient capital can count on the support of the parties – without the endorsement of which most campaigns would founder.

“I think it’s outrageous that the party is, as I understand it, asking for $10,000 per judge,” said Rudolph Garcia, chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association. “I don’t see why printing costs for sample ballots should be anywhere near that amount. This is one of the things wrong with our system, and why we shouldn’t be electing judges the way we do.”

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Sep 27 2011

Williamsport Sun-Gazette endorses Merit Selection

In a recent editorial, the Williamsport Sun-Gazette has roundly endorsed Merit Selection for choosing Pennsylvania judges.

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The editorial exhorts Pennsylvanians to critically examine their recent votes in judicial elections, and how they decided who they would vote for. The editorial notes that political party should not be a determining factor in who sits on the appellate courts, and finds favor with the citizens-based nominating commission that will screen candidates based on their qualifications for the bench.

“That’s why we applaud the introduction of state legislation to implement a Merit Selection system for selecting Pennsylvania’s appellate court judges,” the editorial proclaims.

The editorial cautions that Merit Selection “may not be perfect” but that “it is a more practical way to determine who these very important appellate court judges should be than the current system.”

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We agree with the Sun-Gazette, and hope that the legislature will give Pennsylvanians the opportunity to decide whether to change how we select appellate court judges.

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Sep 26 2011

The Quest to Find a Better Way

An article in Reuters examines an effort occupying several states: the quest to find a better way to select judges.

The article profiles the ongoing debate in Tennessee over whether to continue its Merit Selection system.  Defenders of the current system, including the legal and business communities, argue that ” judicial elections would lead to expensive campaigns — that they’d be asked to bankroll — and biased judges.”  By contrast, those pressing to change the system are eager to get more conservative Republicans on the bench.

The article also looks to Pennsylvania, recognizing the recent introduction of Merit Selection legislation designed as “an an effort to rein in the role of money and fundraising in judicial elections.”  We hope this effort will be successful and will lead to the opportunity for Pennsylvanians to decide how they want to choose appellate court judges.  (Remember, amending the Constitution to implement Merit Selection requires identical legislation to pass in two successive sessions and then a positive public referendum.)

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We know there will be discussion and debate. We just think it’s time to be talking about this critical issue.

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Sep 23 2011

Wisconsin: Time for Merit Selection?

Published by under Merit Selection

An editorial in the Oshkosh Northwestern examines the Wisconsin Supreme Court, beleaguered by what the editorial identifies as “partisan rancor” and “intra-court antagonism,” and offers recommendations on how to repair the Court’s reputation and restore its credibility.

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The editorial notes that suggestions by Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson to increase court transparency and hire outside experts on workplace dynamics failed to gain traction, and suggests that perhaps a panel of former judges could work to assess the state of the Court and recommend remedies to interpersonal conflicts.

Most important, however, the editorial urges the legislature to explore whether Wisconsin should implement a merit-based system of judicial selection:

The current system of electing justices produces an outcome where judicial candidates are politicians, seeking campaign donations and endorsements and attracting unregulated special interest spending. The end result is the best politician, not necessarily the best jurist, is elected thus ensuring that political partisanship becomes a permanent blight on the high court.”

The most effective way to address the problems of the Wisconsin Supreme Court is to eliminate, as effectively as possible, the influence of politics, money, and special interests in judicial selection. The sole consideration for the elevation of a judge to the bench should be that judge’s qualifications and competence to occupy the role. We hope that the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s recent history spurs the people of Wisconsin to examine the workings of their judicial system, and in particular, the process of selecting their judges.

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Sep 21 2011

“Voters Deserve Better”

Published by under Merit Selection,Opinion

A Lancaster Online editorial predicts that the new proposal for Merit Selection of statewide appellate court judges in Pennsylvania may see some political success this time around. “Many people are growing ever more concerned about the increasingly expensive and partisan elections. Also, the Luzerne County ‘kids for cash’ scandal cast a long shadow over the Pennsylvania judiciary.” The article cites the 2010 Public Opinion Strategies poll that found that 75% of people feared that campaign contributions might influence judicial decisions and 93% wanted the opportunity to vote on whether we change our system for selecting appellate judges in Pennsylvania.

As the author states, the proposal repeats what many fair courts proponents have been saying for years. And as State Representative Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster), the bill’s primary sponsor, said, “Merit selection has a strong history in our nation and works well in many other jurisdictions. It produces exceptionally qualified candidates who represent the diverse nature of our society.”

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The editorial speaks out for a better selection of statewide judges. “[F]ew can argue that voters cast an informed vote when it comes to selecting appellate court judges. This is due, in large part, because candidates are limited by judicial ethics in what they can say during political campaigns. This often reduces the campaigns to generalities, niceties and sound bites.”

We agree that the public deserves better and hope the public will have an opportunity to vote on the best way to choose qualified, fair, and impartial members of the judiciary.

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Sep 19 2011

The Times-Tribune urges Legislature to approve Merit Selection

In an editorial posted Sunday, the Times-Tribune of Scranton strongly supports Merit Selection and the constitutional amendment recently introduced in the Pennsylvania Legislature to change the way the state selects judges.

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The editorial examines the corruption trial of State Senator Jane Orie, who is charged with using public resources to conduct her campaign and the campaign of her sister, state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin. The editorial calls the Supreme Court race that Orie Melvin won as “the most expensive and most politically volatile in state history, both sides funded by millions of dollars of contributions from parties with interests before the courts.” A key issue during that election was partisan control of the Supreme Court.

The editorial argues:

Even when the political stakes aren’t that high, statewide appellate elections are a dubious way to select people for high office. Faced with names on the ballot that they probably never had heard during the campaign, voters often rely on ethnicity, party affiliation or geography – all of which have little to do with competence.”

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When we stand before judges, we want to feel that our cases will be decided fairly and by the rule of law, not by party lines or special interests. We want to know that judges are qualified and were seated because of those merits, not because they were the most successful at political glad-handing and gathering campaign contributions. The people of Pennsylvania deserve to have confidence in their judges.

The editorial cautions that “no system, including the proposed one, is perfect,” but that under merit selection, Pennsylvanians would at least know that when judges are seated, “qualifications played a major role in their selection.”

The editorial closes with an exhortation to both Harrisburg and Pennsylvania’s voters: “The Legislature should approve the amendment in two sessions, as required by the state constitution, and send it to the voters for approval.”

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Sep 17 2011

“Time to Appoint PA’s Top Judges?” Take the Poll

An editorial in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer offers a positive review of the introduction of Merit Selection legislation in the General Assembly. The editorial cites the 2010 Poll that found that 93% of the Pennsylvanians surveyed want the opportunity to vote on whether to change how we choose appellate judges.  The editorial quotes PMC: “voters unquestionably deserve ‘the chance to make their voices heard.'”

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The editorial closes with a prediction of what Merit Selection would achieve for Pa:

Other states’ experience leaves no doubt that an appointed appellate bench would mean judges are more likely to be selected on the basis of qualifications and their ability to be fair and impartial.

Citizens, as a result, would have a greater assurance that justice was not being auctioned to the highest bidder.

We certainly agree that Merit Selection offers a better way of choosing appellate court judges.

Accompanying the article is a SayWhat? Poll that describes the Merit Selection proposal and asks readers to vote on whether it’s Time to Appoint PA’s Top Judges.  There are four possible votes: two answer yes and describe benefits of Merit Selection, including that it produces a qualified and diverse judiciary and that it takes money out of the system of selecting judges. Please pick your reason and Vote Yes today.

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Sep 14 2011

PMC releases a new educational video on Merit Selection

Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts releases a new educational video today that explains the numerous problems inherent in electing appellate court judges, how implementing a Merit Selection system would solve those problems, and how Merit Selection works.

Supporters of Merit Selection, including former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, former Superior Court Judges Phyllis Beck and Justin Johnson, and members of the Reform coalition  explain in their own words the benefits of Merit Selection and why it is a better way to select appellate court judges.

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The video is available here.


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Sep 14 2011

General Assembly to Take Up Merit Selection

PMC and PMCAction are pleased to announce that Representative Bryan Cutler (R -Lancaster ) along with Representative Josh Shapiro (D -Montgomery), has introduced legislation that would amend the Constitution to institute a Merit Selection system for Pennsylvania’s appellate courts.

The legislation consists of two bills. The first, H.B. 1815, is a constitutional amendment. The second, H.B. 1816, is implementing legislation that sets forth a detailed explanation of how the Merit Selection system would operate.

Rep. Ron Marsico (R-Dauphin), chair of the Judiciary Committee, is planning to schedule a hearing in October.

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We are pleased that this important issue is before the House, and that it again has bipartisan support.  The growing coalition supporting Merit Selection demonstrates that judicial selection reform is an issue that unites Republicans, Democrats, good government advocates, business organizations, lawyers, nonlawyers, minority groups, and all those who care about ensuring that Pennsylvania has the most qualified, fair and impartial judiciary.

We look forward to the House’s consideration of the legislation, and we hope this is only the first step in the process that will ultimately give the people of Pennsylvania the opportunity to decide whether there is a better way to select our appellate court judges.

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Sep 13 2011

Looking back, and looking forward

In an article in the Columbia Daily Tribune, Skip Walther reflects on the history of the Missouri Plan, the first Merit Selection system adopted by any state.

Walther discusses the Plan’s humble origins in a Missouri hotel, where civic leaders met to form the Missouri Institute for the Administration of Justice. The system that the Institute crafted seemed incompatible with the tenets of the “Jacksonian Revolution,” that is, that “every officeholder — including judges — should be accountable to the voting public.” But Walther points out that this idealized version of completely democratic selection had been tarnished as political entities became skilled at gaming the system. “This allegiance to democracy lost its allure once political bosses began rigging elections to install judicial candidates,” Walther says, with the system producing “corrupt judges.”

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But the work of the Institute demonstrated that an alternative system of selecting judges was available, one that attempted to avoid undue political influence. Three years after the Institute drafted the Missouri Plan, the voters of Missouri had approved it. After it was established, its qualities and benefits became clear. The Plan went on to become a major blueprint for merit-based systems across the nation, and other states began to implement their own similar plans. Now, as Walther points out, a majority of the States use some form of Merit Selection to appoint appellate judges.

The citizens of Pennsylvania deserve judges that are highly qualified, fair and impartial and free from the obligation to raise money for a campaign. We hope that one day soon, Pennsylvanians will be given the opportunity to determine whether our state should follow the path towards Merit Selection mapped out by Missouri decades ago.

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