Archive for March, 2012

Mar 29 2012

Philadelphia Daily News on Orie: Evidence “Stacking Up” Against Judicial Elections

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The Daily News provided its take on Tuesday’s guilty verdict in Sen. Orie’s corruption trial, concluding that a cloud still hangs over Justice Orie Melvin that damages the Supreme Court’s integrity and furthers the call for a new system of judicial selection. The piece echoes PMC’s call for Orie Melvin to do more than just recuse herself from Allegheny County criminal appeals, but to take a leave of absence while criminal proceedings and investigations relating to her past elections are still pending. The Daily News urges Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille to pursue Orie Melvin’s suspension if she won’t step aside, arguing that “the state can’t afford the kind of prolonged and spreading stain that compromises its perceived

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integrity.”

 

The editorial then broadens its scope beyond the Orie situation, acknowledging that “both Castille and the rest of us know that the courts are never quite clear of clouds as long as members of the bench have to enter the fray of politics, fundraising and campaigning to get their jobs.” Citing Pennsylvania’s recent judicial scandals, the piece concludes that “the movement to have judges appointed instead of elected keeps stacking up evidence” and wonders “how many more examples of potentially corrupted judiciary do we need, exactly, to get that point across?”

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Mar 29 2012

Chicago Papers Question Judicial Election System

Published by under Merit Selection

Recent editorials

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in Chicago newspapers have argued that two judicial candidates in Illinois’ upcoming November elections are “reasons why voters need to focus on judicial races” and reminders “of the need to change how judges are selected…from election to merit selection. ” The Southside Star notes that Dan Degnan has won the Democratic nomination for Cook County judge unopposed despite meager experience as an attorney. Just before the March primary, the Chicago Tribune editorial outlined how 12 major bar associations had labeled Degnan “not qualified” or “not recommended”.  Degnan won the nomination unopposed after four opponents, including the judge currently holding the seat, withdrew at some point before election day. The Star attributes this abnormality to Degnan’s political connections as a favorite of Illinois’ Democratic Chairman, and the son of former Mayor Daley’s friend and political advisor. Degnan will run unopposed in the general election as well.

 

The Star also points to the story of sitting Cook County Judge Cynthia Brim, who was recently removed forcibly from her chambers,suspended, and charged with misdemeanor battery. The author explains that “Brim has been a judge since being elected in 1994 (retained by voters in 2000 and 2006), despite consistently poor evaluations by bar groups regarding her judicial knowledge and temperament. But the Democratic Party backed her each time, and that’s all that mattered.” Brim is up for retention in November.

 

The Star blames the “distressing” state of judicial elections in Illinois on “abysmal turnout” and lack of knowledge about judicial candidates amongst the electorate. In endorsing Merit Selection, the Star reasons, “It’s not perfect or entirely beyond the reach of political clout, but it’s certainly preferable to the corrupting system Illinois has now.” We agree that popular election of judges is wrought with potential for exploitation by political interests, and that Merit Selection is the best available alternative.

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Mar 28 2012

Philadelphia Inquirer Supports Merit Selection in Wake of Sen. Orie Conviction

A Philadelphia Inquirer editorial called for the conviction of Senator Jane Orie to spur adoption of proposals for merit-based selection of appellate court judges in Pennsylvania. Senator Orie was convicted on March 26, 2012 on fourteen counts of theft of services, forgery and conflict of interest relating to her use of state-funded legislative staff to support her re-election campaign for state senate.  She was acquitted on an additional ten counts, including all charges related to her alleged use and direction of legislative staff to support the election of her sister, now-justice Joan Orie Melvin of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. A third sister, Janine Orie, former aide to Justice Orie Melvin, is currently awaiting trial on charges that she directed both the Senator’s legislative staff and the Justice’s superior court staff to do work relating to the campaign of Justice Orie Melvin.

The Inquirer editorial notes that although Justice Orie Melvin has yet to be formally charged with any misconduct, she is reportedly the subject of a grand jury investigation. It further argues that, “The understandable calls for Melvin to step back from hearing cases at least temporarily – or for her suspension under court disciplinary procedures – are unlikely to go away.” The Justice has yet to respond to calls for her to step down. However, she has recused herself from hearing criminal cases in Allegheny County, the location of her sisters’ trials, a move that has come under fire.  As stated in the editorial, “As a probe target, it’s time for Melvin to do what’s best for the high court’s reputation by recusing herself from all cases, due to what the court-reform group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts has correctly described as ‘the cloud of such a serious investigation.’”

This case has the potential to be much more than just another instance of a disgraced politician and a political scandal. This should serve as a wake-up call to Pennsylvanians and legislators alike. Judicial elections compromise judges and justices by forcing them to raise funds, which creates the impression that “justice is for sale”As the editorial concludes, “It’s hoped that this case will crank up the momentum for proposals supported by Gov. Corbett to get the state’s appellate judges off the campaign trail by switching to a system of merit-based appointments to statewide courts.” We could not agree more.

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Mar 26 2012

Wisconsin Court Still Embroiled in Partisan Struggles

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Madison’s Capital Times recently reported on some procedural concerns that are further complicating the disciplinary inquiry into the physical altercation between Justice David Prosser and Justice Ann Walsh Bradley in the chambers of the Wisconsin Supreme Court in June of 2011. At the time, the justices were allegedly arguing over a law that stripped public employees of collective bargaining rights, a hot-button partisan issue in Wisconsin that has since led to statewide recall elections. Four other members of the Court witnessed the altercation, which involved Prosser, a Republican, allegedly putting his hands on the neck of Bradley, a Democrat. Even these four justices’ memories of the incident

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seem clouded in partisan politics, with the Republicans recalling Bradley as the aggressor and the Democrats recalling Prosser as the aggressor.

While disciplinary proceedings are pending against Prosser, it is unclear how they can proceed. State law makes the state Supreme Court the arbiter of judicial discipline, but judges must be disqualified if they are a party or material witness to the matter. That leaves just one justice potentially eligible to hear the case. While lawmakers have introduced solutions to this dilemma both recently and in past sessions, the article’s author doubts that state Republicans would risk Prosser’s case going forward and losing its majority in the Court in order to fill a gap in the law.

The author describes the situation as “just another in a long string of ugly episodes — dirty campaigning, ethical breaches, open hostility over recusal rules, and now a physical altercation — that have soiled the reputation of the court.”  The piece then quotes former Justice Janine Geske, who attributes these ugly episodes to “a combination of…political times, money in Supreme Court races, personality differences, philosophical differences, and some bad behavior.” We share the view that judicial campaigning and partisanship have a corrosive effect on judicial integrity and decorum.

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Mar 22 2012

Speaking Out for Merit Selection

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In response to new legislative attacks on Missouri’s Merit Selection system, the Kansas City Star and Columbia Daily Tribune feature strong pro-Merit Selection commentaries.

The Daily Tribune reminds readers that Missouri sets no limit on campaign contributions, and thus worries that the sponsor of the first resolution “wants to eliminate merit selection of judges and instead adopt a patronage system of judicial selection”. It goes on to question: “Do we want to select judges based on their competence and expertise, or would we rather have judges who can pony up enough political contributions to buy their way into a judgeship?”

The Star’s editorial warns that “a move toward elected judges would be disastrous…Direct elections would result in hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent to influence judges, much of it from out of state and anonymous.”

Both pieces regard Merit Selection as “a proven model” that “has served the state well”. The Daily Tribune further chastises the state legislature’s tendency to “play politics with judicial selection” and worries that “the prospect of

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a well-funded election-year attack on judges is ominous.”

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Mar 19 2012

Pennsylvania Record covers PA Merit Selection Hearing

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The Pennsylvania Record has reported on the Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee’s Merit Selection hearing earlier this month. The article uses Luzerne County’s disgraceful “Kids for Cash” scandal as its first example of why many Pennsylvanians worry that “an elected judiciary has the ability to be, and very often is, influenced by factors such as campaign dollars and quid pro quos.” It also cites a report

by the Annenberg Public Policy center finding that “[b]ig money and mudslinging are undermining public trust in the judiciary and the ability of judges to act independently and impartially…”                          

The Record goes on to outline the detailed schematics behind both Merit Selection bills, emphasizing that Pennsylvania is one of “only a handful” of states that still chooses all of its judges via partisan election. In its coverage of the hearing itself, the report quotes the testimony of PMC’s Executive Director Lynn Marks, who urged the Committee that “Pennsylvanians deserve a system designed to seat the most qualified judges possible”. It also relates PMC Deputy Director Shira Goodman’s call to “keep judges out of the fundraising business.”

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Mar 16 2012

NY Times Editorial Praises Effort to Implement Merit Selection in PA

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An editorial in the New York Times entitled “No Way To Choose A Judge” urges Merit Selection as a good solution for Pennsylvania. The editorial recounts recent judicial election news in Alabama and the ongoing investigation into the use of government staff for the elections of State Senator Jane Orie and her sister Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin. Then the editorial notes:

These seamy doings have helped spark a promising effort by Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a nonprofit advocacy group, to persuade the State Legislature to approve a constitutional amendment that would scrap competitive partisan elections. Instead the state would adopt a new system of initial merit appointment and nonpartisan retention elections.

The editorial notes that no system of choosing judges is perfect but opines that Merit Selection “would be a start toward ridding the state’s courtrooms of politics and campaign cash.”

Passing the pending legislation is the first step in a long process of amending the constitution, a process that culminates in a public referendum.

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We hope the people of Pennsylvania will get the opportunity to decide whether there is a better way to choose appellate court judges.

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Mar 15 2012

Testimony from 2012 PA Merit Selection Hearing Now Available

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A report on the March 1, 2012

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hearing of the PA House Judiciary Committee in Philadelphia is now available here. The report includes links to the written testimony of the various groups that spoke at the hearing, as well as written comments submitted to the Committee beforehand.

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Mar 14 2012

North Carolina Paper Argues for Merit Selection

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In its new editorial, The Pilot of Southern Plains, North Carolina reasons that the state “needs to alter radically the way it selects its judges.” Titled “Let’s Pick Judges More Judiciously”, the editorial hopes for a judicial selection system that would “keep partisan politics and special-interest money out of the picture.” Positing that such factors “pollute” the current system, the authors worry that the Citizens United case will exacerbate the existing problem. In particular, the editorial cites the regrettable facts from Caperton v. Massey, where an

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energy company, facing a $50 million adverse decision, invested $3 million in a candidate’s campaign for state Supreme Court. The victorious candidate then proceeded to cast the deciding vote on the same energy company’s appeal, erasing the company’s $50 million liability without properly recusing himself from the case. The Pilot stresses that

Episodes like that should be enough to sicken anyone who believes in a fair and credible judiciary. So should systems in which judicial candidates stump for votes on the basis of promises, blatant or implied, to vote certain popular ways in future decisions on issues like abortion or gun control.

The piece applauds Gov. Beverly Perdue’s recent decision to appoint a judicial nominating commission for interim appointments, but adds that “further steps are needed.” The editorial ponders the best method of judicial selection to replace North Carolina’s current method of non-partisan elections, specifically urging that the proposed return to partisan elections is the “worst of all the available alternatives.” It concludes that a system of “nonpartisan-or at least bipartisan-nominating commissions” followed by an appointment process and retention election “would seem the ideal choice for North Carolina.” We agree with The Pilot , and hope that Pennsylvanians will soon get the opportunity to vote on implementing a Merit Selection system here.

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Mar 12 2012

Editorial: Big Contributions from Law Firms Mar Supreme Court Campaigns

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Greg Hinz of Crain’s Chicago Business recently

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reported that two leading candidates for the Illinois Supreme Court have received a significant percentage of their respective campaign funds from a single law firm donor each. Incumbent Mary Jane Theis has collected around $70,000 from attorneys at Kirkland & Ellis, a large Chicago firm. Meanwhile, challenger Joy Cunningham has collected over $30,000 from attorneys at Pavalon & Gifford, a small personal injury firm. These contributions constitute about 10% and 5% of the candidates’ campaign funds, respectively.

Cunningham has said that, if elected, she would recuse herself from “any case where there is anything that would even cause the appearance of impropriety”. Theis already recuses herself from cases involving Kirkland & Ellis due to other connections with the firm. But as Hinz sees it,

[w]hen judges have to consider recusing themselves because of where they got their campaign cash, you know that something fundamental is wrong with the judicial system. When that’s the case with the state’s highest court, it’s especially worrisome.

We share the author’s concerns and believe that the solution to the “money problem” is Merit Selection, which gets judges out of the fundraising business altogether and eliminates the problem of having campaign contributors appear before judges they helped to elect.

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