Jan 28 2013
Wednesday, January 23 could prove to be a game-changer in the history of the Pennsylvania judiciary. The day marked the beginning of the corruption trial for suspended PA Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin. It was also the day that State Senators Anthony H. Williams (D-Philadelphia) and Richard Alloway (R-Adams, Franklin, York) introduced a constitutional amendment that would bring Merit Selection to Pennsylvania’s three appellate courts.
These two events have collided to create a nearly perfect storm for reform efforts. The charges against Justice Orie Melvin highlight the very serious problems created by judicial elections. Running for judge in Pennsylvania is big business, and like any business, a judicial campaign requires a large amount of capital to get off the ground. Quite often, campaign contributions come from lawyers, “businesses, unions, and other groups seeking the courts’ ear.”
A Philadelphia Inquirer article points to the heart of the problem. “[T]he Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School found that Pennsylvania Supreme Court elections consistently ranked at or near the top of special-interest spending.” There is an unfortunate and “widespread perception that ever-growing amounts of money spent on judicial campaigns foster corruption and undermine public confidence. … Pennsylvania’s system of electing judges … has, at best, fostered mediocrity and, at worst, led to an atmosphere of judicial misconduct.”
Beyond the obvious financial concerns, there is precious little information available to the electorate that can be used to make an educated choice in a judicial election. People “vote on factors such as ballot position, ethnicity and geography – hardly the way to find qualified judges.” The efforts to
institute Merit Selection of appellate judges in Pennsylvania are certainly not new, but the need for reform is, perhaps, more dire than ever. The landscape of judicial elections is changing. The data show record-breaking spending by special interests, and there is no reason to believe that Pennsylvania will be immune from this trend. Public confidence in the judiciary is wavering. It’s time to show Pennsylvanians that providing fair and impartial justice is a top priority in the Commonwealth.
“No system is perfect, and the proposed amendment cannot eliminate all political considerations. But it would mitigate politics and elevate true qualifications as the means to be considered for seats on the Commonwealth, Superior and Supreme courts.”