State Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin’s preliminary hearing before District Judge James Hanley in Pittsburgh Municipal Court started yesterday. A preliminary hearing is an initial hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence to proceed to trial.
Justice Orie Melvin’s case highlights a main problem with judicial elections. She is charged with using her government staff and resources for political purposes during her campaigns for the Supreme Court.
According to an article in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, three former staffers testified that “they were expected to perform campaign work” during Melvin’s 2003 campaign for state Supreme Court. Campaign work included distributing literature at polling places, filling out questionnaires for interest groups and newspapers, and fielding election phone calls. One testified to being asked to forge expense vouchers in order to pay poll workers.
The three witnesses were Lisa Sasinowski, Melvin’s chief
law clerk, Molly Creenan, Melvin’s staff attorney, and Kathy Squires, Melvin’s secretary. Sharon Cochran, an employee of former Sen. Jane Orie, also testified yesterday. Justice Joan Orie Melvin’s preliminary hearing continues today.
For more information, see the articles in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review and the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.
Tags: Orie Melvin
, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
In 1995 the Texas legislature passed the Judicial Campaign Fairness Act. It was enacted
due to too many scandals and too much money in Texas Supreme Court elections. The Act “imposes mandatory caps on contributions and voluntary limits on expenditures in judicial races.” The voluntary provision is thought to be effective because of peer pressure, and because if one candidate does not comply, the other need not comply.
According to an article in the Texas Tribune the act is being put to the test by a Republican runoff election for a district court seat in Marshall, Texas. Brad Morin is running against incumbent Judge William Hughey. Brad Morin “told the Texas Ethics Commission he would reject the voluntary limits when he named his treasurer for the race in August 2011.” This has caused both candidates to file lawsuits, ethics complaints and counterclaims against each other.
If more candidates follow in Brad Morrin’s footsteps and choose noncompliance of the voluntary limits, Tom “Smitty” Smith, the Texas director of the political watchdog group Public Citizen stated it could be “disastrous to the independence of our judiciary.” Morrin’s actions have not only drawn attention from a political watchdog organization, but also from state senator Rodney Ellis. Ellis wrote,
I am very concerned that we will see a flood of money that further erodes Texans belief in a fair and equitable justice system, . . . We’re moving back towards a Wild Wild West election system and that is not a good thing.”
, Judicial Campaign Fairness Act
Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor continues to promote the virtues of merit selection. O’Connor has been a long-time supporter of this cause. Appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Justice O’Connor advocated
for merit selection in the states. “The result of judicial elections ‘has been the need for candidates to raise money for their election campaigns and I think that has a corrupting influence on the selection of judges.’”
The cover story from
this summer’s The American Scholar is calling on judges throughout the country to “lead the effort to reclaim justice from politics – and from the money that defiles it.” The article takes an in depth look at the money pouring into judicial elections and the negative effect that campaign contributions have on the public’s perception of the courts.
Judicial elections were instituted as a way to maintain judicial independence during a time when executive and legislative governments were besieged by corruption, but the institution has strayed far from the original objective. Big money campaign contributions have wiped out any semblance of impartiality and have made judges beholden to donors.
A study by the Brennan Center for Justice reported that lawyers, lobbyists, and business interests donated nearly 40 percent of the funding for state high court elections during the 2009-2010 election cycle. “Independence, the foundation of impartiality, fairness, and trust in courts, has increasingly been replaced by dependence on big contributions. The purpose of these donations in many cases is to ensure that courts are controlled by judges who favor the interests of donors and to thwart democracy.”
When it comes to the influence of money on elections, criticism abounds from everyone from Stephen Colbert to Sandra Day O’Connor. “The transformation of judicial elections in the previous decade from modestly funded, almost exclusively local affairs to expensive national contests has led former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to make reform of judicial selection her crusade in retirement.”
The devastating consequence of cut-throat campaign tactics and overzealous fundraising is a ravaged perception of the judiciary where the public believes that justice is for sale. “The spectacle of would-be judges hurling sound bites at each other raises the question why citizens should respect that rule [of law] when the people who end up shaping it from the bench demonstrate such injudicious traits to get there—and, worse, after they’ve arrived.”
A great political struggle currently abounds to bring about change and put merit selection in place. “The same money engulfing the electoral process is very likely to defeat any proposed amendments to state constitutions in favor of merit selection.” Judges who believe in the rule of law need to be on the front lines of this struggle working to remove the influence of money from the judiciary. “Until that happens, the rule of law will continue to be ravaged by partisan election cycles that degrade the judiciary’s fairness, impartiality, and independence.”
Election season brings campaign mishaps, and judicial elections are no exception. Recently, three judges, two from Ohio and one from Texas, have been accused of violating campaign laws.
Ohio Common Pleas Court candidate, Judge Kathryn Michael, was fined for accepting an improper campaign donation from her ex-husband and for improper wording on her campaign material. The Ohio Supreme Court’s Board of Commissioners on Grievances and Discipline conducted a
hearing and concluded “by clear and convincing evidence” that the judge had violated the Ohio Code of Judicial Conduct. Michael had previously repaid the $25,000 contribution from her ex-husband and corrected her misleading campaign materials. As part of the Board’s ruling, she was required to pay $2,500 in attorney fees and court costs associated with the disciplinary complaint.
Also in Ohio, the validity of statements made in state Supreme Court candidate and former judge William M. O’Neill’s campaign materials was called into question. Originally, a five-judge panel determined that Mr. O’Neill misrepresented himself as a current judge in his campaign materials. However, that decision was overturned by a new panel that was created by the Ohio Supreme Court in order to keep itself out of campaign conflicts arising out of races for the Supreme Court bench. The panel determined that, while misleading, the claims in Mr. O’Neill’s campaign materials were not false under the Judicial Code of Conduct.
In Texas, 71st District Judge William Hughey has filed three complaints against his opponent, Brad Morin, alleging ethical violations. Judge Hughey’s first complaint was filed last week, and another two complaints were filed on Tuesday. Hughey claims that Morin has accepted thousands of dollars in illegal campaign contributions.: “As a candidate for district judge, Mr. Morin has failed to follow the law and has run his campaign in an unethical and illegal way.” Mr. Morin said that he contacted the Texas Ethics Committee to obtain the complaint, but he was told that no copy of a new complaint was available. Mr. Morin responded, “I’m trying to figure out how to reply to something that I haven’t seen.”
With scandals and distractions dominating the news about judicial elections, it’s nearly impossible for voters to get meaningful information to inform their votes. While some candidates are vindicated, others, unfortunately, are guilty. All allegations, whether true or unfounded, interrupt the normal campaign process and misdirect voter attention.
The problem isn’t confined to Texas or Ohio or any other state; the voters of Pennsylvania have to contend with these disruptions as well. However, Merit Selection offers an alternative. Merit Selection takes judges out of the fundraising game and saves them from having to mount political campaigns that have the potential to run afoul of ethical rules.
Tags: Brad Morin
, Judge Kathryn Michael
, Judge William Hughey
, judicial elections
, William M. O’Neill
According to the Texas Tribune, Texas Supreme Court elections are already becoming heated. Former district court judge, John Devine is running against eight-year incumbent Justice David Medina in a Republican runoff election.
John Devine has taken a grass roots approach to the election. Justice David Medina has the support of Republican elected officials, and he has traveled
the state introducing himself to voters.
Both candidates have had their fair share of controversies. In 2008, Justice Medina was indicted in an arson case causing $1 million in damages to his home. Charges against Justice Medina were dropped. “Afterward the Harris County grand jury’s foreman said the dismissal of the charges had been politically motivated.” In 1997, Devine was sanctioned by the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct for “using court chambers to announce his run for Congress.” He has also struggled to keep the 10 Commandments in his courtroom and is an anti-abortion activist. “At a June rally in Fort Worth, Mr. Devine told the crowd he had been arrested 37 times while protesting abortion clinics. . . . His activism on behalf of anti-abortion causes raised concerns when it appeared likely that he would hear cases related to abortion laws.”
According to the Statesman, one recent controversy between the two involves Devine’s motivations for running against Justice Medina. Scott Link, a former district judge, and Frank Harmon, an attorney, claim that Devine targeted Medina because “‘he had a Mexican name’ and was therefore vulnerable in a GOP primary.” Devine claims these statements are untrue and dishonest. The Statesman reported that Devine thinks this is an attempt to distract the public from Justice Medina’s 2002 driving while intoxicated charges, “his trial ended in a hung jury — and a $35,000 Texas Ethics Commission fine for improperly spending campaign money on personal travel.”
The Republican primary runoff election is scheduled for July 31, 2012. As the date nears, how much more time and money will be spent pointing fingers? Is this how we should be choosing our judges?
, judicial elections
, other states
, state supreme court
Judicial elections are changing and not for the better. Georgia Chief Justice Carol Hunstein and Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg addressed the state of judicial elections at the Choosing Our Judges seminar during the Florida Bar’s annual convention.
Campaign spending for judicial elections has been on the rise. “We believe the rapid and radical transformation of judicial elections is the biggest democracy issue
that most Americans are not hearing about.”
Justice Hunstein cautioned, “Special interests seeking favorable court rulings are behind a sustained and ‘targeted attack on the judicial system’ in court elections.” What may be surprising is the source of campaign donations. Out-of-state interest groups contributed much of the money in recent state Supreme Court elections. Forty percent of the funding for these contests was provided by just ten groups.
Justice Hunstein related her own election experience. While running for the Supreme Court of Georgia in 2006, a business group hand-picked her challenger and then gave $1.2 million to a political action committee to fund her opponent.
The campaign culture of big spending in judicial elections is not limited to a few states. It is a national problem, and a problem that is affecting Pennsylvania. The Commonwealth has some of the most expensive and most competitive judicial elections in the country. Choosing judges via a Merit Selection system would get judges out of the fundraising business and would help to restore the public’s ailing confidence in the judiciary.
A column in the Legal Intelligencer by legal ethics expert Samuel C. Stretton argues that “judge-itis” or “black robe disease” undermines the integrity of the judicial system by eroding the mutual trust between lawyers, litigants, and judges.
Stretton defines a judge suffering from judge-itis as one “who thinks he or she is so important that he or she can act unilaterally and arbitrarily”. Symptoms include tardiness in taking the bench, rudeness to lawyers and litigants appearing in front of them, proselytizing from the bench and socializing with members of the bar in such a way as to compromise their judicial integrity. The cure for this ailment, according to Stretton, is to “elect judges with more experience, wisdom and maturity.”
It is indisputable that misbehaving judges undermine the integrity, efficiency and public trust in the judicial system. However, the answer is not to continue with the current system of judicial elections. Judicial elections can result in the inexperienced candidates (and problematic judges) that Stretton describes because there are no criteria that govern who can run for judge. Merit Selection of judges puts potential judges through an intensive vetting process by a bipartisan nominating commission made up of both attorney and non-attorney members. In addition, Merit Selection also establishes criteria, including years of legal experience, reputation for honesty and integrity, and service to the community, which
applicants must satisfy to be recommended by the nominating commission as part of the list of candidates prepared for the governor.
Merit Selection minimizes the potential for inexperienced judges to get on the bench which reduces the likelihood of judge-itis. Further, Merit Selection limits the influence of special interests on the judicial selection process, making it less likely that a judge will feel either entitled to his judgeship or beholden to her constituents.
As Stretton states, “The best judicial officers are those who struggle every day to be fair and do justice. These men and women recognize their limitations but act with fairness, an interest in learning and humility.” Merit Selection is the best process to ensure that judges are capable of and committed to fulfilling their roles as arbiters of justice.
Birmingham lawyer, Stephen L. Sexton, has some harsh criticism for the way that Alabama chooses its Supreme Court justices.
“The big money that funds Alabama’s Supreme Court races is corrupting — not criminally, necessarily, but it strains the objectivity of the
jurists. How can they take that kind of money and not be influenced by it? You just can’t. It doesn’t mean they’re bad people, but you’re going to be influenced by the kind of money they take.”
Sexton’s quotes appear in a commentary on judicial elections on the website Gavel Grab. The remarks first appeared in a blog post written by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Joey Kennedy, for The Birmingham News.
Kennedy further criticizes the collision of law and politics that is the unfortunate result of judicial elections. Kennedy says that elections produce “terrible choices in judges….” He tells the story of Roy Moore, a former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice that was removed from his post amidst a political controversy. Sexton rightly concludes, “The one place in the world that needs to be apolitical is the judiciary.”
Democratic committeeperson, Karen Bojar, says that the least enjoyable part of her job is recommending judicial candidates. In
her letter to the editor in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Bojar praises Walter Phillips’ op-ed on judicial selection reform. She points out how difficult it is to obtain relevant and dependable information about the candidates and how few voters actually participate in judicial elections. “One interpretation is that the people are sending a message that they do not want to elect judges.” Pennsylvanians deserve the opportunity to decide for themselves whether there is a better way to select judges.