An editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer uses the case of a Philadelphia Traffic Court as evidence of the problems inherent in electing judges. Traffic Court Judge Willie Singletary is in trouble, and as the editorial points out, it’s not the first time.
Judge Singletary, who was already sentenced to a reprimand and probation by the Court of Judicial Discipline for violations during his campaign that included direct solicitation of contributions and seeming to promise favorable outcomes in exchange for donations, has now been escorted out of of Traffic Court following allegations that he showed naked pictures of himself to a City employee doing work related to Traffic Court. And, before he was elected to Traffic Court, Singletary had amassed huge traffic fines ($11,500) and had his driver’s license suspended. This history prompted the following observation by the Inquirer:
Beyond suggesting an ability to empathize with the plight of drivers in similar straits, Singletary’s resumé hardly stands as an endorsement for Pennsylvania’s system of electing judges. It’s also a condemnation of the vetting process of the city’s dominant Democratic Party, to which many judicial candidates must pay fealty – and a hefty donation – for its help on Election Day.
We’ve long known that judicial elections reward fundraising prowess, campaign skill, and other attributes that are unrelated to one’s ability to serve as a judge. Pennsylvanians deserve a system of choosing judges that is designed to get the most qualified, fair and impartial judges on the bench. Judicial elections are not the way.
Tags: Court of Judicial Discipline
, judicial elections
, Philadelphia Inquirer
, Traffic Court
, Willie Singletary
An Illinois judge is being scrutinized for her acceptance of campaign contributions from three law firms shortly after assigning them favorable trial dates in the asbestos case calendar. As The Telegraph reports, Judge Barbara Crowder was removed from presiding over those cases after news of the donations became public, and now Madison County Board Chair Alan Dunstan has requested that the Judicial Inquiry Board investigate:
Importantly, the acceptance of certain campaign contributions creates a perception of conflict and negatively impacts the image of Madison County, the courts and of Judge Crowder. . . . As Madison County Board chairman, I appreciate the quick action of Chief Judge Ann Callis and the other judges in the Third Judicial Circuit to remove Judge Crowder from her former docket. However, despite that action, I believe the judicial review I have requested is warranted.
Judge Crowder maintains that there is no connection between her scheduling order and the contributions and has announced that she will return the campaign contributions.
This incident, however it is resolved, highlights a major problem with electing judges — elections require judicial campaigns to raise money from the people and organizations most likely to later appear before those judges in court. This, in turn, fosters the public perception that “justice is for sale.” The best way to solve the problem: get judges out of the fundraising business.
Tags: Alan Dunston
, Judge Barbara Crowder
, judicial elections
, Madison County
Paul Carpenter’s commentary in the Allentown Morning Call highlights a major problem inherent in electing judges — the money problem. Carpenter focuses on reactions to a recent post-campaign solicitation on behalf of Judge-elect Doug Reichley. In Pennsylvania, judicial campaigns can continue to raise funds following the election, but only for a limited time. This prompted a solicitation letter, from two lawyers on behalf of the Reichley campaign, to all 700 lawyers in Lehigh County requesting donations of $100 to help retire the campaign’s debt.
Carpenter noted that Reichley claimed he would not be influenced by campaign contributions, but, Carpenter observed:
Those who cannot see into Reichley’s heart, however, might fret over which lawyers acceded to the demands and which ones didn’t. Also, suppose you have a lawyer who paid the $100 but the other side has one who paid significantly more.
In your mind, maybe there are echoes of the judicial scandals in Luzerne County, or a few in Lehigh County, or even at the Pennsylvania Supreme Court level. Maybe you feel you’d better shop for a lawyer who knows how to play ball.
Barry Kauffman, Executive Director of Common Cause, noted that “We shouldn’t have people going into court wondering if the other side has made contributions to that judge.” He further explained that the only way to avoid that is Merit Selection.
We agree that Merit Selection is the way to solve the money problem — simply put, it gets judges out of the fundraising business. No longer would anyone have to worry whether the litigant or lawyer on the opposing side of the case had contributed to the judge’s campaign and what effect that might have. That would be a very positive change for Pennsylvania.
Tags: Allentown Morning Call
, Barry Kauffman
, Common Cause
, Doug Reichley
, Lehigh County
, Paul Carpenter
That’s the tile of an op-ed by two of our our partners — Justice at Stake’s Bert Brandenburg and the Brennan Center’s Adam Skaggs — in Reuters. It explores the growing problems caused by campaign contributions in judicial elections. The authors recount the increasing costs of judicial elections, the source of the funding, and the rise of “super spenders.” They then remind us that “Court cases are supposed to be decided by the law, not by who wrote the biggest campaign check to the judge.” The public concern about this is also growing, as recent polling data reveals that “Voters clearly recognize the risks to fair and impartial courts when judges have to depend on deep-pocketed benefactors to gain a seat on the bench.
The role of money in judicial elections and the public perception that campaign contributions affect judicial decision-making are critical reasons to find a better way to choose judges. Merit Selection takes judges out of the fundraising business; no longer would the public have to worry whether a lawyer or party in court had contributed to the campaign of one of the judges or justices deciding the case.
Tags: Adam Skaggs
, Bert Brandenburg
, Brennan Center
, judicial elections
, Justice At Stake
, Merit Selection
As we noted earlier this week, there is some talk in Virginia of changing the way judges are selected. Currently, they are appointed by the legislature. An editorial in the dailypress.com approves of the Lieutenant Governor’s proposal to use a commission-based appointment system and outlines the benefits of nominating commissions:
Judges should not be politicians. A commission-based selection process by a broad-based group that examines the experience and credentials of candidates, conducts interviews and evaluates candidates’ fitness for service is more likely to produce an impartial and well-qualified judiciary than elections or legislative appointments. A system that also includes retention votes makes judges accountable to the people at large for upholding the standards of integrity and conduct required by the position.
These are some of the very reasons we believe Pennsylvanians should consider implementing a Merit Selection system for the appellate courts. We hope the people of Pennsylvania will soon have the opportunity to weigh in on this issue.
, Merit Selection
Recently, we reported that a debate was held in Minnesota about whether to change the way judges are selected. Now, we’re reading that similar debates are being held and questions raised about judicial selection in Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin. While each of these states is different and has its own unique experiences in the judicial selection arena, the critical point is that the issue is being publicly discussed. These discussions are important steps in the lengthy process of changing how judges are selected. It is essential that the public be engaged and have the opportunity to debate and discuss the issue.
We know Pennsylvanians have strong views about how judges should be selected, and we also know that Pennsylvanians want the opportunity to decide if there is a better way to select judges than the current electoral process. Merit Selection bills are pending in both houses of the legislature, and it anticipated that the House Judiciary Committee will reschedule the public hearing that was initially scheduled for November.
We hope that Pennsylvania will soon be talking about judicial selection as well. It is time.
Tags: judicial selection
, Merit Selection
A recent article in the Texas Tribune discusses the potential in statewide judicial elections for candidates to be selected based on criteria no less superficial than the ethnic indicia a name provides.
The article, titled “The Cues Voters Use to Elect Unknown Candidates,” argues that “voters choose dozens of important state officials in every election without knowing a thing about them. So they rely on other cues — like political affiliations, pleasing names and who knows what else.” The article runs through some of the results of recent Texas appellate court elections, and tries to reconstruct the reasoning voters might have employed when making their selections.
Noting that the preeminent quality that voters in Texas are looking for is a “Republican ‘R’ behind [a candidate’s] name”, the article proposes that the real contest for officials occurs in the G.O.P. primary in March, giving even less time for voters to actually understand a candidate and make an informed choice, and leaving far less relevant qualities of candidates to serve as deciding factors.
The article poses the question, “When little else is known about two candidates in a G.O.P. primary, is a Hispanic surname a liability?” The judicial race in which Stephen Wayne Smith was victorious against Xavier Rodriguez for a spot on the Texas Supreme Court is used as an illustrative example. Little was known about either candidate going into the election. What, then, did the voters rely upon when making their choice? Names were all the public had available to them in the voting booth; it’s not unreasonable to wonder whether names decided the race.
When we elect judges in contested elections, we unconsciously – or consciously, as the case may be – impose our own biases and agendas onto the concept of justice, something that should be set wholly apart from politics, prejudices, and ideology. A judiciary must serve the people, but a judge’s fitness to serve should be determined by his or her ability to interpret the law and see that justice is fairly administered – not the ability to win votes, and certainly not by factors as inconsequential as a surname.
Tags: judicial elections
, name recognition
, Xavier Rodriguez
A panel will meet December 6 in Afton, Minnesota, to debate whether the state should change the way it selects judges, according to a post on the Minnesota Senate Distrcit 57 GOP’s website.
A Constitutional amendment bill has recently been submitted to Minnesota’s legislature that would replace Minnesota’s contested judicial elections with a system in which judges initially are appointed by the governor, and would then be subject to retention elections at the end of a term. Under the bill’s provisions, a special commission would be established to help the public evaluate judges’ performance.
This proposed model differs from what we have been advocating that Pennsylvania adopt – the governor of Minnesota would have complete discretion in the initial appointment of a judge, rather than have to select a candidate from a short list compiled by a nominating commission. The commission’s work in Minnesota would apparently be only to educate the public about performance, and to guide them during retention elections.
However, the sentiment is generally the same: that popular election of judges may not end up serving the actual needs of the public, and that the people of a state should be given the opportunity to decide for themselves what system would provide the best, most qualified judges. Senate District 57 Republican Party Chair Kellie Eigenheer notes that “everyone wants a judiciary that is fair, objective and enforces the law. The disagreement is how best to get that result – having the people elect judges, as we do now, or having the governor appoint judges based specific merit-based criteria.”
Public debates are critical to helping the people of a state understand what is at stake, and educate them about the alternatives to their current selection systems. We’d like to see similar debates in Pennsylvania, and soon, the chance for the people of both states to vote on how best to choose their judges.
Tags: Merit Selection
, public debate