Archive for February, 2012

Feb 28 2012

Merit Selection Hearing on Thursday March 1

Published by under Merit Selection News

A Public Hearing on Merit Selection  (HB 1815 and 1816) will be held by the PA House

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Judiciary Committee on Thursday, March 1st from 1:30-3:30 pm, at the National Constitution Center, Kirby Auditorium, 525 Arch Street, Philadelphia.  We know from public polling that Pennsylvanians want the chance to weigh in on the question of how we choose our appellate judges.  This hearing is a critical step in the process that can culminate in the people of Pennsylvania having the opportunity to vote on whether to change how we choose appellate court judges.

Among those expected to attend are:

  • Rep. Ron Marsico (R-Lower Paxton), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee
  • Rep. Bryan Cutler (R-Peach Bottom)
  • Eric A. Tilles, Esq., president of the DELVACCA chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel
  • Kathleen D. Wilkinson, chancellor-elect of the Philadelphia Bar Association
  • Representatives from Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts and PMCAction
  • K.O. Myers, Director of Research and Programs for the American Judicature Society
  • Bishop Mary Floyd Palmer, Pastor, Philadelphia Council of Clergy
  • Matthew Berg, Director of State Affairs for Justice at Stake
  • Charlotte Glauser, Judicial Specialist with the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania
  • The Honorable Phyllis W. Beck, retired judge
  • Walter M. Phillips, Jr., Esquire
  • David N. Taylor, Executive Director, Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association
  • Michael Walker, the Urban League
  • Randy Lee, Professor of Law, Widener Law School

Please consider attending. If anyone would like to submit written comments, please contact Michael Fink as soon as possible at mfink@pahousegop.com.  Comments will be accepted until the morning of February 29th and copies will be distributed at the hearing and made part of the record.

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Feb 27 2012

Kansas Senate Votes to Maintain Merit Selection

Published by under Merit Selection

The Topeka Capital-Journal reports that Kansas’ state Senate has defeated legislation that would have changed the state’s system for selecting appellate judges from a merit selection system with a nominating commission to a system of direct appointment by the governor and senate confirmation. By a vote of 22-17, a bipartisan coalition of senators defeated Senate Bill 83, which had passed through Kansas’s House of Representatives last year at the urging of special interest groups and supporters of Gov. Sam Brownback.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Democrat, had argued that “[t]his motion is an egregious effort to politicize judicial appointments” and that “[t]he judiciary as an independent and co-equal branch of government was designed to provide stability against the political winds.” With no lack of support from across the aisle in the Republican-controlled Senate, Hensley’s defense of merit selection prevailed. We applaud the resolution of the Kansas state Senate to preserve merit selection, a system we feel is well-suited to separating politics from our justice system and maintaining checks and balances between branches of government. Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee will hold a merit selection hearing of its own on March 1 in Philadelphia to discuss the proposed adoption of the system in Pennsylvania.

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Feb 23 2012

Minnesota Radio Forum Backs Merit Selection

Published by under Merit Selection

The call for judicial reform took to the airwaves this week when former Minnesota Governor Al Quie joined a panel of guests on KFAI-FM Twin Cities Radio to endorse merit selection, retention elections, and performance evaluation panels for Minnesota’s judges. Quie confirmed merit selection’s compatibility with democratic principles by drawing a stark distinction:

 When you vote for either your legislator or the governor you want them biased to your political view. When you pick a judge you want them to be competent, to be respectful of you, and to be trustworthy so that they don’t come at your case in a biased manner.

Quie then lamented that most judges are elected with little or no scrutiny of their qualifications, and reminisced laughingly at his own earliest voting experiences, when he would simply pick any judge’s name on the ballot who appeared to share his Norwegian heritage. The panel proceeded to discuss the impact of political campaigns and fundraising on the public’s faith in the judiciary, concluding that “you want every citizen to be able to go to court with the assumption that you’re going to get a fair hearing…and you’re not going to have to worry about if you participated in a judge’s campaign or not”.

A merit selection constitutional amendment proposal in Minnesota’s legislature currently has the support of

a “robust bipartisan coalition”. Quie nonetheless worries that the amendment is getting lost amongst the state’s fierce partisan struggles and has called on the public to contact their representatives and request action, noting that “our big problem is, will the legislature even take this up?” Pennsylvania’s own merit selection constitutional amendment similarly has received broad bipartisan support and will be the subject of a House Judiciary Committee hearing on March 1.  We hope that both Pennsylvanians and Minnesotans will be given the opportunity to ultimately decide what system they want to use to select their judges.

 

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Feb 22 2012

"No Money from Nobody"

Published by under Merit Selection

That’s

the tag line for one of the candidates in Ohio’s Democratic primary for the chance to challenge incumbent Supreme Court Justice Robert Cupp.  According to the CantonRep.com, both Democrats believe the Ohio Supreme Court has  “a trust problem.”  Candidate William O’Neill, a former appeals court judge, says “‘Money and judges don’t mix,'” and pledges not to accept money from anybody.  His opponent is Fanon Rucker, a Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge.

We think the candidates have tapped into the important public perception that campaign contributions influence judicial decision-making and the accompanying lack of confidence in the courts.  O’Neill’s solution — “no money from nobody” — is an interesting one, and we think there’s a way to apply it across the board.  Get judges out of the fundraising business once and for all.  The way to do that — stop using expensive elections to pick judges, and use Merit Selection, which stops the flow of money to judicial candidates.

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Feb 16 2012

Wisconsin State Supreme Court Justices Call for Merit Selection

Published by under Opinion

Two sitting justices of the Wisconsin State Supreme Court have called on their state to consider ending direct judicial elections and enact some form of Merit Selection.  Justice Patrick Crooks, previously a defender of electing judges, stated that the sheer amount of money being spent on judicial elections has changed his mind on Merit Selection.  State supreme court elections were once much smaller financial affairs.  Justice Crooks stated that, recently, “the huge amounts being spent on Supreme Court elections clearly provide a tension on this court, and surrounding this court.” Much of the money now comes from outside sources.  In the most recent Wisconsin State Supreme Court race, one incumbent and his challenger spent a total of nearly $1.3 million with outside special interests spending another $4.5 million on the race.

Justice Ann Walsh Bradley stated that her thinking had evolved on a similar trajectory.  She still prefers rules requiring more meaningful disclosure of judicial campaign contributions and recusal but isn’t

sure such changes will occur.  Given the likelihood of a continuation of the status quo, Justice Bradley was “concerned that an elective process isn’t one where the people are really being heard, that their voices are being drowned out by special interests”.

We also support Merit Selection ofappellate judges.  Judicial elections require fundraising and electioneering that reduces the public’s faith in a fair, impartial judiciary.

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Feb 15 2012

PA House Judiciary Committee to Hold Merit Selection Hearing

A Public Hearing on Merit Selection bills HB 1815 and 1816 will be held by the Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee on Thursday, March 1st, at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.  We have long advocated for Merit Selection and we applaud the Committee for taking this vital first step in providing Pennsylvanians with the opportunity to enact Merit Selection and remove fundraising and electioneering from the job description of the Commonwealth’s appellate judges.

Pennsylvania currently elects its appellate judges.  This requires candidates to raise money from the people and organizations most likely to appear before them.  Judicial elections also reward campaign skills and partisanship, not experience and excellence.  Pennsylvanians deserve a system of selecting judges that ensures that we get the most qualified, fair and impartial judges.  Merit Selection is the way to do this.

If anyone is interested in testifying or submitting written testimony, please contact Michael Fink at mfink@pahousegop.com.  Please provide your testimony by Monday, February 27, 2012.

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Feb 14 2012

Tennessee Paper Endorses Merit Selection

Published by under News

The Memphis Commercial Appeal has endorsed Merit Selection for Tennessee’s judges.  As the paper states, “[h]aving “Democrat” or “Republican” after a judicial candidate’s name should not be a measure of whether he or she is qualified to dispense unbiased rulings.”

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has called for an amendment of his state’s constitution to provide for continued Merit Selection of

appellate judges.  Currently, candidates to the state’s appellate courts are interviewed by a nominating commission which forwards a list of recommended candidates to the governor for appointment.  The appointed judges must then win a retention election every eight years.

While supporters say that the system avoids costly judicial elections and produces good judges, it is uncertain whether it comports to the Tennessee Constitution’s requirement that judges “shall be elected by the qualified voters of the State.” Gov. Haslam has called for a constitutional amendment to provide for the permanent substitution of retention elections for competitive elections.

The Commercial Appeal backs Haslam’s efforts:

 If that’s what it takes to keep overt politics out of state appellate judgeship selections, we hope the governor gets his way. . . The public would be better off if Haslam wins this battle. Appellate judges issue rulings that have a tremendous impact on Tennessee citizens. These decisions should not be issued by judges concerned about raising campaign funds and the feelings of partisan supporters or antagonists.

We agree.  The citizens of Tennessee deserve impartial judges and Merit Selection is the best way to ensure that judges make decisions based on the law, not money or politics.

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Feb 08 2012

Merit Selection Advocated in Alabama

Published by under Merit Selection,News

The chief U.S. magistrate judge for the Northern District of Alabama will retire in October of this year but we are happy to see the use of a Merit Selection Panel to fill his position. Last week an order was issued by Chief U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn appointing 13 people to the Merit Selection Panel, which will nominate candidates for the chief magistrate judge position. Blackburn and the other judges in the district voted on who to appoint to that panel. “The panel is made up of 10 lawyers, the chief of the U.S. Attorney Office’s criminal division, and two people from Birmingham’s business community. John L. Carroll, dean of the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University and a former magistrate judge, was named chairman of the panel.” So how will the panel work?

The Merit Selection Panel must consider all applicants for the position [and] . . . applications must be submitted only by applicants personally. . . [In May,] the panel will report to the court the names of the five people it determines to be the most qualified. . . The district court will then make the selection from the names of the persons recommended. [Additionally,] before a new magistrate judge can take office, he or she must undergo a full background investigation by the FBI and an IRS tax check.

This panel is somewhat similar to the first step of the Merit Selection process supported by PMC: screening and evaluation by a citizens’ nominating commission that recommends the most qualified candidates to the governor. The ideal commission would be composed of men and women, non-lawyers and lawyers, from across the state and from diverse backgrounds.  This allows the appointment power to be shared, achieves a bipartisan commission and ensures a direct role of the public.  We hope the use of Merit Selection by federal courts in Alabama, a state plagued by hyper-partisan judicial election campaigns, will serve as a model for local judicial selection reform.

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Feb 07 2012

Oregon State Supreme Court Chief Justice Fears Future “Arms Race” in State Judicial Elections

Published by under News

Oregon State Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul De Muniz will soon be leaving the bench.  In a recent interview, he discussed the many difficulties he has experienced while administering his state’s judicial system.  While most of his recollections focused on keeping the courts running during the economic downturn and updating the judiciary’s aging information technology infrastructure, he also had some choice words on the dangers of judicial elections on the integrity of the courts.  After witnessing the increase in spending in high court races in West Virginia, Illinois, and Ohio, he has called on the Oregon Law Commission to study alternatives to Oregon’s current system of nonpartisan election of judges.  Justice De Muniz was particularly concerned about the effect of special interest money on the Oregon judiciary:

It is no wonder special-interest groups now see opportunities to influence who serves on a state’s highest court. . . So far, Oregon has been spared the financial arms race that typifies the funding of judicial election campaigns in many other states… But we should not wait for the nuclear judicial

arms race to strike here.

We agree that the increased spending on judicial campaigns is a direct threat to an impartial judiciary and hope that the voters of Pennsylvania and Oregon will be given the opportunity to choose Merit Selection.

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Feb 01 2012

Philadelphia Daily News Endorses Merit Selection

Published by under Opinion

A Daily News editorial strongly endorsed Merit Selection of Pennsylvania’s judges.  The paper argued that no litigant can be confident in the fairness and impartiality of the courts when our system of selecting judges requires massive fundraising efforts during judicial campaigns.  Much of this money comes from attorneys, law firms, interested parties likely to appear in court including large corporations and unions, and political parties.

The Daily News also criticized the Commonwealth’s recusal rules as “weak and vague, and requir[ing] only that judges recuse themselves when their ‘impartiality might reasonably be questioned.’” The paper stated that:

Of course, many judges don’t like to think their impartiality should be questioned, and get offended at the suggestion. And since judges aren’t required to recuse themselves from a case involving a campaign contributor, we can’t be sure that justice will always be served.  This is yet another reminder that the state ought to switch to a merit-selection system that at least somewhat insulates judicial selection from politics, as soon as possible.

Merit Selection will require an amendment to the state constitution.  There are Merit Selection bills currently before the legislature to change the system for selecting appellate court judges, and Gov. Corbitt supports the change.  While such a constitutional amendment will take some years to accomplish, the paper points out that the legislature could act now to reform the current recusal rules, as recently happened in Tennessee.

Tennessee recently introduced a rule prohibiting judges from hearing a case if campaign spending by lawyers or litigants might cause the judges’ impartiality to reasonably be questioned, and goes further by requiring judges who decline a recusal request to provide a written explanation. The state also allows litigants to appeal the decision, taking it

out of the hands of the judge in question. (In Pennsylvania, judges’ decisions not to recuse can be overturned on appeal. . . But it doesn’t happen often.)”

We agree with the Daily News that the real solution is to get judges out of the fundraising business.  Merit Selection is the way to do this.

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