Jun 29 2012
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.