The Democratic primary for the 73rd District Court in San Antonio, Texas, featured an unusual coincidence. Both candidates were named Canales. That’s where the similarities end. Paul Canales has 37 years of legal experience, 22 as a judge. David Canales has been a lawyer for six years.
The campaign did not garner much attention in the media, and neither candidate engaged in extensive advertising efforts. Most voters knew barely anything about either Canales, but David Canales appeared first on the ballot.
Ballot placement likely won David the election. He beat the more experienced Paul Canales by 900 votes. An editorial in the San Antonio Express-News is taking these primary results as an indication that it’s time to revamp the judicial selection process in Texas.
“A system featuring appointments followed by merit elections — in which jurists face an up-or-down vote — would be preferable. … But until lawmakers decide to fix the broken system, judicial races in Texas will continue to be a dangerous roll of the dice.”
David Canales will face the incumbent, Republican judge in the November election. If the past two election cycles are any indication, the election will not be decided on merit or experience, but on which party’s presidential candidate does best in the county. As the editorial plainly states, “[T]hat is a terrible way to pick a judge.”
An editorial in Cleveland newspaper, The Plain Dealer, is calling on Ohio’s governor to use Merit Selection when filling the vacancy on the Ohio Supreme Court created by the early departure of Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton. The paper is hoping that the governor will consult with a panel “that would screen potential nominees with an eye to quality and temperament, not electability or political ties.”
The governor has previously used Merit Selection to fill judicial vacancies at the county level. The editorial says, “Doing the same at the statewide level would send a powerful message that talent should trump politics.”
Judges must be honest and objective in order to maintain the integrity of the court, but judicial elections undermine the judiciary’s ability to remain unbiased. Groups that are likely to appear before the court make generous contributions to judicial campaigns which intensifies the public perception that justice is for sale. Merit Selection gets judges out of the fundraising business and promotes a system that aims to put the most qualified, not the most connected, judges on the bench.
The negative effect that campaign fundraising has on the public’s perception of the judiciary is an issue that has made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice at Stake and eight retired Montana Supreme Court justices filed a friend-of-the-court brief proclaiming the necessity of protecting the court from the influence of special interests.
The brief asserted, “Enormous special interest expenditures in state judicial elections are threatening one of the Constitution’s most central guarantees–the right to due process and a fair trial.” Further, the impartiality of courts “has been endangered by the surge in judicial campaign spending, creating the appearance and expectation that judges are beholden to special interests.”
A related press release from Justice at Stake’s executive director, Bert Brandenburg, said, “Americans want cases decided according to the law, not who wrote the biggest check.” The brief adds that significant judicial campaign contributions bolster the public’s fear that “justice is for sale.”
Filing of the brief on May 17 coincided with the indictment of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin on May 18. Orie Melvin was charged with campaign corruption. She allegedly used her tax-payer funded staff for political campaign work during her bids for a seat on the Commonwealth’s highest court in 2003 and 2009.
Considering the demonstrated concerns surrounding judicial elections, the time is right to enact legislation that would start the process of amending Pennsylvania’s constitution to switch to a system of Merit Selection. The people of Pennsylvania are ready for the chance to decide for themselves whether or not Merit Selection is a better way of choosing appellate court judges.
Pennsylvania newspapers continue to call attention to the fact that judicial campaigns undermine the integrity of the courts. In a discussion of the campaign corruption charges against Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, the Harrisburg Patriot-News says, “This is just the latest ordeal that demonstrates that having judges campaign for their spots on the court can taint the justice system.”
Orie Melvin is charged with using state resources for political campaign work in her Supreme Court election campaigns in 2003 and 2009. As the article emphasizes, “Certain professions demand an extra degree of integrity and respect. … The state Supreme Court represents the highest tier of justice in this state. Its integrity is essential if the court is to have relevance and authority.”
It is time to stop using elections to select our appellate judges. Pending Merit Selection legislation would begin the process of amending the state constitution. That process culminates in a public referendum that lets the people of Pennsylvania decide whether or not there is a better way for the commonwealth to choose appellate judges.
According to the Philadelphia Daily News, the indictment and suspension of Justice Joan Orie Melvin “puts another big fat bow on the move to have judges appointed on merit rather than elected”. Justice Orie Melvin was indicted last week on charges that she used her state-funded judicial staff on her 2003 and 2009 campaigns for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The charges cast a “dark shadow” over the Court and serve to decrease public confidence in the Pennsylvania judicial system.
The editorial points out that the Pennsylvania judicial system has weathered a number of scandals in the past few years that “have been testament to the dangers of subjecting judges to a partisan political process that requires lots of money to succeed.” Requiring judges to campaign for their seats creates the appearance of impropriety since they must solicit campaign contributions from individuals and organizations that often appear in front of them.
Additionally, as the grand jury presentment regarding Justice Orie Melvin demonstrates, campaigning is a full time job. “The testimony in this latest grand jury report paints a disheartening picture of a judicial office, not as the sanctuary of justice, fairness and responsibility, but, rather, as a never-ending machine of raising money, campaigning and doing whatever is necessary to stay in office.” Merit Selection would allow judges to focus on their judicial and administrative duties rather than on the requirements of a campaign.
The time is ripe for Merit Selection. We agree with the Daily News that the House Judiciary Committee members should take whatever steps necessary to fast-track the pending legislation and give Pennsylvanians the right to choose whether we change the way we select judges.
During yesterday’s House Judiciary Committee meeting, Chairman Marsico announced that several bills, including the Merit Selection legislation, would be held over for consideration at a future meeting. Although we are disappointed in the delay, we are optimistic that the legislation will be considered at an upcoming meeting, and we are hopeful that the Committee will favorably report the bills out to the full House. In the wake of the indictment of a sitting Supreme Court justice for alleged illegal political and campaign activities, isn’t it time to give the people of Pennsylvania the opportunity to decide whether there is a better way to select our appellate court judges?
Tags: Chairman Marsico
, House Judiciary Committee
, Merit Selection
An editorial in the Scranton Times Tribune argues that the indictment of Justice Joan Orie Melvin on charges of political corruption illustrates the need for merit selection in Pennsylvania. According to the editorial, “The charges go to the heart of the commonwealth’s folly in conducting elections for appellate court seats, rather than filling those seats through a merit-selection screening process and gubernatorial appointment with Senate confirmation.”
Justice Orie Melvin was indicted Friday on nine counts relating to her alleged use of state-funded staff and resources for her campaign for the state Supreme Court. Pursuant to a Supreme Court order, she has been suspended from all judicial and administrative duties. She will continue to receive pay and benefits.
The editorial argues that “[j]udges are supposed to be politically neutral but Pennsylvania’s system contradicts that goal. Judicial candidates solicit contributions from lawyers and narrow-interest groups with business before the courts. They seek the favor of political parties, which is the opposite of neutrality.”
This kind of politicking is detrimental to the Pennsylvania justice system. As PMC’s Executive Director Lynn Marks stated in a Patriot News article, “Judicial elections require candidates to campaign, participate in very partisan primary processes and fundraise, really blurring and eliminating the distinction between them and politicians. Asking them to go through this partisan process and then be nonpartisan starting after election day, it just doesn’t make sense.”
Hopefully, the House Judiciary Committee, which is scheduled to vote on Merit Selection next Tuesday, will use the Justice Orie Melvin saga as a cautionary tale against judicial elections and vote the Merit Selection bills out of committee.
As the state legislature prepares to vote on an amendment to the Pennsylvania constitution that would do away with partisan judicial elections, an editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer expects that the indictment of state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin will serve as a pointed reminder of why such an amendment is necessary.
Melvin faces nine criminal counts alleging that she used her taxpayer-funded staff to do political campaign work while running for her state Supreme Court seat. Melvin has maintained her innocence and vowed to fight the charges. Nevertheless, this scandal has cast a dark cloud over the state’s highest court and has forced the other justices to take action to restore public confidence. Melvin was relieved of all court duties on Friday in an effort to respond to “a compelling and immediate need to protect and preserve the integrity” of the court.
The Melvin charges bring to light the unfortunate truth that judicial elections can turn judges into politicians that are sometimes “all too willing to break the rules to get elected.” It’s time that judges got out of politics and returned their focus to the fair and impartial administration of justice. “The Melvin case has become Exhibit No. 1 on the need to enact the judicial merit-selection legislation pending in Harrisburg.”
Now is the time for action on Merit Selection! Please contact the members of the House Judiciary Committee and ask them to vote YES on sending Merit Selection Bills (H.B. 1815 and H.B. 1816) to the full House for consideration.
The vote is scheduled for next Tuesday, May 22.
Bringing the Merit Selection Bills to the floor is a crucial step in amending the constitution – a process that culminates with Pennsylvanians having the opportunity to vote in a referendum on whether to change the current judicial selection process. Pennsylvanians deserve the right to decide whether we should change how we select appellate judges.
|Marsico, Ron , Chair (email) (717) 652-3721Dauphin CountyStephens, Todd (email) (215) 368-5165
Cutler, Bryan (email) (717) 786-4551
Grell, Glen R. (email) (717) 795-6091
Krieger, Timothy (email) (724) 834-6400
Creighton, Tom C. (email) (717) 664-4979
Delozier, Sheryl M. (email) (717) 761-4665
Ellis, Brian L. (email) (724) 283-5852
Gillespie, Keith (email) (717) 840-4711
Keller, Mark K. (email) (717) 582-8119
O’Neill, Bernie (email) (215) 441-2624
Rock, Todd (email) (717) 749-7384
Saccone, Rick (email) (717) 749-7384
Toepel, Marcy (email) (215) 679-3082
Toohil, Tarah (email) (570) 450-7905
|Caltagirone, Thomas R. , Democratic Chair (email) (610) 376-1529Berks CountyKula, Deberah (email) (724) 626-2761
Bradford, Matthew D. (email) (610) 270-1150
White, Jesse (email) (724) 746-3677
Allegheny and Beaver Counties
Brennan, Joseph F.(email) (610) 882-1510
Lehigh and Northampton Counties
Costa, Dom (email) (412) 361-2040
DePasquale, Eugene (email) (717) 848-9595
Neuman, Brandon P. (email) (724) 743-7602
Sabatina, John P., Jr. (email) (215) 342-6204
Waters, Ronald G. (email) (215) 748-6712
Delaware and Philadelphia Counties
In a post on the New York Times Editorial Page Editor’s Blog, Andrew Rosenthal asserts:
Elections are the worst way to select judges. The process leaves judges beholden to party bosses, wealthy donors, and the whims of the very, very few people who actually bother to vote.
Rosenthal focuses on Michigan and the recent report of its Judicial Selection Task Force. He notes the Task Force’s recommendations to make elections truly nonpartisan and require disclosure of all election expenditures and donations. But he opines that:
These are fine, civic-minded ideas, but they’re just band-aids. The best way to fix the system is to change it—to replace elections with gubernatorial appointments based on merit. A bipartisan nominating commission would screen candidates according to defined legal standards.
We agree that elections are not the right way to select judges. Merit Selection is designed to bring the most qualified, fair and impartial judges to the bench, and it does so through a process that gets those future judges out of the fundraising business. We hope the Pennsylvania legislature will give Pennsylvanians the opportunity to decide in a referendum election whether there is a better way to select our appellate court judges. Let the House Judiciary Committee know you want the opportunity to decide.
Tags: Andrew Rosenthal
, House Judiciary Committee
, judicial elections
, Merit Selection
, New York Times