Chris Mondics’ article in the Philadelphia Inquirer highlights the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the lack of judicial selection reform in Pennsylvania. Despite a number of scandals and a recommendation from a judicial-reform commission appointed by Gov. Bob Casey, the Commonwealth has yet to reform the judicial election system that currently puts our judges on the bench.
Judicial elections turn judges into politicians and infuse money into the court system. “Wannabe judges raise money from special interests, most alarmingly from some of the same lawyers who appear in their courtrooms. They court ward leaders and politicians, run political ads, and crisscross the state as they campaign for their seats.” Pennsylvanians are left with the distinct feeling that justice is for sale.
Further, the need to raise ever-increasing amounts of money in order to mount a successful campaign can compromise the integrity of the courts. “It is irrefutably true that there would have been no indictment of Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin last month on campaign-finance law violations had she been appointed.” Orie Melvin is accused of using her tax-payer funded staff for campaign activities during her 2003 and 2009 bids for a seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. She has plead not guilty to the charges.
Mondics observes that opponents of Merit Selection say that an appointed judiciary is unaccountable to the people, but in fact, judicial elections do little to provide accountability:
“Judicial elections don’t, and really can’t, serve as a vehicle for judges to stake out positions lest a candidate be seen as prejudging a legal question. The elections thus don’t serve the purpose of accountability because, beyond broad generalities, there’s little of substance a candidate can say. Add to that the pathetically low turnout rate, 20 percent or less in some local races, and what is left is a process that accomplishes little of what it promises.”
Research shows that “elected judges are prone to higher rates of ethical infractions than those who are appointed.” While there is no perfect system of electing judges, Merit Selection focuses on qualifications, gets judges out of the fundraising business, and gives the public input at every stage of the process. Pennsylvanians deserve the opportunity to decide for themselves whether to change how we choose our judges. We hope they get that chance.
In a letter published in the Harrisburg Patriot-News, PMC’s Lynn A. Marks points out the problems in Dan Pero’s recent op-ed about Merit Selection. Pero focused on the fact that even Merit Selection systems cannot totally eliminate politics from judicial selection. While conceding this point, Marks pointed out the big issues that Pero ignores and the real reasons Pennsylvanians want to find a new way to select judges:
Seventy-six percent of surveyed Pennsylvanians believe that campaign contributions affect judicial decision-making. In other words, the public believes justice is for sale. The same survey found that 73 percent believe that the most qualified candidates do not win judicial elections. This is not surprising. Elections are designed to reward the best campaigners and fundraisers, not the most qualified candidates.
Marks further notes that by tabling the Merit Selection legislation, the House Judiciary Committee essentially voted against allowing the people of Pennsylvania to decide whether to change how we select appellate judges. 93% of surveyed Pennsylvanians want the opportunity to decide. Pero thinks the legislature serves the voters by tabling legislation and keeping the issue bottled in committee. We disagree and believe the legislature can show voters it trusts them by giving them the opportunity to decide for themselves whether there is a better way to choose judges.
Tags: Dan Pero
, Harrisburg Patriot-News
, Lynn A. Marks
, Merit Selection
A column in the Holland Sentinel opines about the state of Michigan courts. Four years ago, Michigan was ranked last in a grading of the nation’s supreme courts conducted by the University of Chicago Law School. Michigan’s ranking was partly a reflection of its lack of judicial independence.
In response to the court’s poor perception, a Michigan Judicial Selection Task Force was created. The bipartisan task force was made up of more than 20 respected residents of the state and set out to identify the problems plaguing Michigan’s judicial system and solutions to address those issues. The group’s report is out now, and the results are striking.
The task force discovered that judicial elections in the state are expensive, secretive, tinged with favoritism, and susceptible to partisan politics. The group ultimately reached two unanimous recommendations: 1. Judicial elections should be open and non-partisan, and 2. All judicial campaign contributions should be publicly reported.
While these recommendations will help improve the election process, some of the task force members felt that further action was needed and favored switching from judicial elections to a Merit Selection system. Changing to a system where a screening commission would vet candidate qualifications for gubernatorial appointments that are subject to the approval of the legislature requires that the Michigan constitution be amended.
The column concludes with disappointment at the fact that the task force’s recommendations haven’t been seriously considered by leaders in the state. Nevertheless, these suggestions have brought the need for reform to the forefront.
Because the Commonwealth also uses partisan judicial elections to choose our judges, Pennsylvania’s judicial system is susceptible to the same troubles that afflict Michigan’s courts. Like Michigan, proponents of judicial selection reform have suggested amending the Pennsylvania constitution to switch to a Merit Selection system. Like Michigan, Pennsylvanians are hopeful that our legislative leaders will “be willing to do something to benefit our entire state.”
Tags: Holland Sentinel
, judicial elections
, Merit Selection
, Michigan Judicial Selection Task Force
An article in the Columbia Daily Tribune discusses the struggle to retain Missouri’s current merit selection system. Missouri has had a merit selection system since 1940. Recently, the general assembly passed a bill that could change this system, pending voter approval. Under the proposed system the governor would have more influence over selecting nominating commission members.
While realizing that the legislative and executive branches are the proper places for politics, the judicial branch is different.
Judges are supposed to be honest and impartial and decide cases based on the law and the facts of the case.”
The article warns voters of the politics that may come into play with the passage of this bill. “It is a virtual certainty that future governors will be showered with political contributions from these men and others who want to shape the ideological makeup of our highest judges.”
2 Missouri citizens have already spent over $1 million to change the current merit selection process. In November, we will see whether the “courthouse doors are open to the highest bidder.”
Tags: merit selection legislation
According to the Dallas Morning News, the trial begins today for a Texas woman accused of contributing to a judicial campaign in hopes of receiving a custody decision in her favor. Stacy Stine Cary faces felony charges of engaging in organized criminal activity, bribery and money laundering for her role in what prosecutors allege was a “complex scheme” to elect now-former-Judge Suzanne Wooten to the Texas bench in 2008.
Ms. Wooten was convicted in November 2011 on the same charges as well as additional charges of tampering with a government document. She was sentenced to 10 years probation, 1000 hours of community service and a $10,000 fine. Cary’s husband, David Cary and Wooten’s campaign manager, James Stephen Spencer also face charges.
This is a clear example of the dangers inherent in requiring judges to campaign for a seat on the bench. Clearly, but for judicial elections, this would not have happened. Judicial elections create the appearance that justice is for sale to the highest bidder and occasionally creates the perfect storm of corruption, as was allegedly the case for Ms. Cary and her cohorts. Merit selection takes judges out of the fundraising business and avoids the circumstances that can lead to problems like those now on trial in Texas.
An editorial in the Bucks County Courier Times is calling attention to the arguments for Merit Selection in Pennsylvania and expressing disappointment at the House Judiciary Committee’s failure to move Merit Selection legislation forward.
Considering the recent indictment of state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin for campaign finance law violations, the article declares, “Perhaps the greatest pitfall for judges in Pennsylvania is the need to raise money to conduct an election campaign….”
Orie Melvin raised nearly $2 million for her 2009 campaign for a position on the Commonwealth’s highest court. Her opponent in that campaign raised $2.7 million. “That’s a lot of money. And regardless of what anybody says, it isn’t handed out without at least some strings attached.”
Lawyers, law firms, and special interests are the most prevalent contributors to judicial campaigns. “Think all they’re interested in is a fair judiciary? Think again.”
The article concludes, “Indeed, electing judges is possibly the worst way in the world to consistently put qualified people on the bench — people who really care about ethics, impartiality, fairness and justice.”
A blog post on ThinkProgress concurs and warns of the growing, unencumbered influence of campaign contributors.
“One of the most troubling aspects of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 Citizens United ruling is that outside special interests are now free to spend as much as they want on ads for or against candidates not just for those running for legislative and executive offices, but also for judicial positions.”
Money is power, and the public believes that special interests are using money in the form campaign contributions to exert influence in the justice system. It’s time to get judges out of the fundraising business and ensure that Pennslvanians have a fair and impartial judiciary that delivers justice for all.
An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer examines the efforts to implement a Merit Selection system in Pennsylvania. The article highlights Justice Orie Melvin’s indictment for allegedly using her state funded staff and resources for her election campaigns and notes that this is not the first time that one of Pennsylvania’s state judges has been in trouble.
But beyond the scandals, Pennsylvania’s current judicial election system creates other big problems. Discussing one of the biggest, former Dean of Temple University, Beasley School of Law, Professor Robert Reinstein stated,
To run, you have to be willing to raise enormous amounts of money. To think that you can have this system with all this money floating around without compromising judicial independence is equivalent to believing in the Easter Bunny.”
Why in the wake of such problems did the House Judiciary Committee decide 13-12 to table the Merit Selection bill? The article explains that trial lawyers, anti-abortion activists and others oppose Merit Selection.
A pivotal development occurred June 1, when the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation, an anti-abortion group, informed members of the House Judiciary Committee that it opposed the measure and would weigh members’ votes when making endorsements in the next election.”
Committee chairman Ron Marsico (R., Dauphin) who initially “believed he had enough votes to release the bill from committee, said the e-mail swayed several committee members to vote to table the measure.”
This Bill would have given voters the opportunity to decide in a referendum whether to adopt a Merit Selection System for the appellate courts. Lynn Marks, executive director at Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts observed,
‘The part that is ironic is that it is the groups that say we need to elect judges who are saying don’t vote for this legislation.’ She added that those opponents are taking a very hard to defend position and are basically saying ‘we don’t want the people to have the right to change their constitution.’”
Tags: judicial elections
, Merit Selection
, Orie Melvin
, Philadelphia Inquirer
An article in The Legal Intelligencer remarked on the puzzling fact that despite several scandals that have tarnished the reputation of the Pennsylvania courts, legislators have nevertheless voted to table Merit Selection legislation that would have brought reform to the judicial selection process. Tabling of the legislation has led some to wonder why the voters are being denied the opportunity to decide for themselves whether there is a better way to pick judges.
Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts’ Lynn A. Marks, explained,
“I think what these scandals do is they put the issue [of judicial selection] on the radar screen … But it doesn’t give us legislative reform on a silver platter, it just makes it easier to paint a picture of what the issues are and helps build a coalition and a little more outrage by the public.”
Opponents of Merit Selection claim that the process “disenfranchises voters.” However, Lawrence J. Beaser, a partner at Blank Rome and long-time supporter of Merit Selection, maintains that Merit Selection is “the ’perfect combination’ of public input and vetting by an experienced nominating committee.”
Advocates of Merit Selection want to give the voters the option of choosing judicial selection reform, but that can’t happen until the supporting legislation makes its way through the process. PMC’s Shira Goodman pointed out, “It’s a very nice sound bite for critics to say that merit selection means taking away the public’s chance to vote, but we want people to decide, ‘Is there a better way?’ That’s what this bill and vote would have done.”
The campaign for Merit Selection continues. The people of the Commonwealth deserve the chance to decide for themselves.
An editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer highlights the fact that special interest groups that oppose Merit Selection legislation have betrayed the voters whose rights they claim to protect:
[T]he trial lawyers, unions, gun-rights advocates, and abortion foes who continue to oppose reforms that would take appellate-court judges out of partisan elections achieved their victory by denying voters the very chance to air their views.
Changing to Merit Selection requires a constitutional amendment, a long process that culminates in a referendum, a vote of the people. In other words, only the voters can change how we select appellate court judges.
Contrast that open and democratic proposal with what happened as special-interest groups lobbied lawmakers with the apparent view that elections are the surest way to pick jurists favorable to them.
Last week, the Merit Selection legislation was tabled in a narrow procedural vote in the House Judiciary Committee; the bill never received an up-down vote and did not get an opportunity to reach the whole House.
Voters should be furious with such legislative bullying, given that the statewide reform group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts says more than nine out of 10 state residents want the chance to vote on the issue. As PMC and other supporters of merit selection — including the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, and Philadelphia Bar Association — realize, judicial elections undermine public trust in the courts because candidates raise money from lawyers and other interest groups that may appear before them.
The editorial concludes with disbelief that the voters are not being given the opportunity to decide this issue, despite a sitting Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice having been indicted for alleged violations of campaign laws:
How anyone could defend a system of picking judges that produces corruption of the type alleged against Melvin is a mystery. Even more troubling is the fact that powerful forces in the state don’t even want to let voters make up their own minds on this critical court reform.
We agree: it is time to let the voters decide.
Tags: gun rights
, House Judiciary Committee
, Merit Selection
, Philadelphia Inquirer
, trial lawyers
A Philly.Com poll asks if Pennsylvanians should get the opportunity to vote on whether to change how we choose judges. Well, of course we deserve that opportunity and the legislature should let the people decide.
The poll offers four choices:
Yes, judicial campaigns make it seem like justice is for sale
No, there are higher priorities facing the state
Yes, it has been more than 40 years since voters had a chance
No, lawmakers know it won’t pass due to trial lawyers’ objections
Please vote Yes and let our lawmakers know that it’s time to let the people decide.