The Scranton Times-Tribune published a January 14th editorial calling on the Pennsylvania Legislature to enact merit selection of state appellate judges. This move was prompted by the delivery of a target letter to Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin. The Times-Tribune echoed PMC’s call for Justice Melvin to step down pending the grand jury investigation or be removed by her colleagues. The editorial stated that:
Even if the justice is not charged, however, the case to which the target letter is related already is a cry for sweeping reform of how appellate judges are selected in Pennsylvania.
The paper reported that Justice Melvin’s campaign for the high court was the most expensive for a single seat on the Court in state history with each candidate raising over $2 million, most of which came from parties with “frequent interests in the courts” such as unions, businesses, attorneys, and political parties. The Times-Tribune cited the rising costs of judicial elections and the large spending by “ideological third parties” aimed at influencing state voters on issues other than judicial competence as the reasons why the Legislature must act now to mitigate the effects of politics and money on the state courts.
This issue has festered for years as the price of judicial elections has escalated, and ideological third parties have spent heavily to influence voters on political matters unrelated to judicial competence. No one pretends that a merit selection would be perfect. Politics never can be eradicated from the process. But politics can be mitigated, and qualifications emphasized, through a merit selection process that ends the need to raise funds, craft political alliances and rely on parties that frequently have business with the courts. Since a lengthy process is required to effect the required constitutional change, the Legislature should move quickly so that the case involving the Ories is the last of its kind.
Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts have consistently advocated for merit selection of appellate judges and ending the Commonwealth’s money-fueled, partisan judicial elections.
There has been extensive news coverage of the revelation that Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin is the target of an on-going grand jury investigation about the use of government staff for election activities. In the wake of those revelations, PMC called on the Justice to temporarily step aside from her judicial duties; PMC also urged the state Supreme Court to temporarily suspend Justice Orie Melvin if she failed to voluntarily step aside. PMC has been cited in numerous articles throughout the Commonwealth and by local radio stations.
Deputy Director Shira Goodman was quoted in The Legal Intelligencer regarding the target letter Justice Melvin received from the grand jury: “That was kind of the line for us. . . [The target letter] moved this from the realm of ‘this is kind of a sticky situation’ to ‘this is really much more serious and could undermine her ability to serve.’” Both the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Post-Gazette quoted PMC Executive Director Lynn Marks who stated that: “All citizens, including judges are presumed innocent until proven guilty, but judges and especially supreme court justices should not be permitted to judge others while under the cloud of such a serious investigation.”
Philadelphia Public Radio WHYY News Works also quoted Goodman in regards to Justice Melvin’s recusal from hearing cases involving the Allegheny County prosecutor who argued the previous criminal cases against her sisters: “We don’t think it’s enough. . . I think she would still be weighing in on very important questions that affect all Pennsylvanians from family matters to business questions to possibly the redistricting case and we don’t need a cloud. We don’t need questions about whether a judge. . . legitimately should be there or not.”
On Thursday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette echoed PMC’s call for Justice Melvin to take a leave of absence or face suspension:
Justice Melvin simply cannot go on as if this is business as usual. While her own presumption of innocence has not changed, her continuing presence on the high court does no service to the people of Pennsylvania or the venerable institution whose reputation she is supposed to uphold. Justice Melvin has already conceded half the point by recusing herself from cases involving the Allegheny County district attorney’s office. She must go further and take a leave of absence until this black cloud is cleared. If she won’t go voluntarily while the grand jury tries to connect the all-too-prominent dots of this case, Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille should use his power to convene a four-member majority of the court to suspend her.
Harrisburg Public Radio WITF also spoke to Goodman who outlined the problems with the judicial selection process in Pennsylvania: “We have a system that treats judges like politicians. They have to get party endorsements, they have to raise money, they have to curry favor with special interest groups to be able to run and succeed in a 67 county state.” Goodman went on to explain that the grand jury investigation demonstrates why elections are not the right way to choose our appellate judges.
Tags: Joan Orie Melvin
, Philadelphia Inquirer
, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
, WHYY Newsworks
The following is a guest post from Sekou Campbell, an associate at Fox Rothschild LLP in Philadelphia.
The O’Jays craftily described the power of money in their classic “For the Love of Money,” where they swoon, “money will make you…do things, do things, bad things for it.” In the aftermath of the Luzerne County scandal, Pennsylvanians have a unique understanding of how cash can make society’s most relied upon decision-makers do “bad things.” Of course, the vast majority of judges have integrity and comport themselves with ethical principles. Yet, few can dispute the power money has to taint the perceptions of both the judiciary and the body politic.
Recently, a cacophony of reports and editorials from the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Harrisburg Patriot-News, and the New York Times have profoundly questioned Pennsylvania Supreme Court policy regarding gifts: if judges may accept gifts from lawyers who appear before them so long as they disclose them. Hopefully, the Court notices and acts upon the near uniform condemnation of this policy.
Presents cast a specter of bias on even the most virtuous and fair judge. The judiciary should, at least, consider ways to mitigate this perception deficit. For instance, just as corporate boards form special litigation committees of disinterested directors when making decisions regarding derivative suits, so could the judiciary form a similar committee for recusals. Otherwise, the judiciary could adopt the ABA Model Code of Judicial Conduct 2.11 which requires the disqualification of judges who have received contributions from lawyers appearing before them. Of course, the judiciary would have to engage in discourse with itself and the public regarding its recusal rules. However, requiring mere disclosure, without more, undermines the legitimacy of the venerable Pennsylvania bench.
, guest post
, Sekou Campbell