Archive for the 'Judicial Elections' Category

Feb 25 2015

Cast your Vote in Favor of Merit Selection on the Poll

The website is hosting a poll allowing readers to choose whether they think Pennsylvania judges should be elected or appointed.

The poll comes in the wake of several controversies involving elected judges in Pennsylvania, including those on the Supreme Court.

This week, comedian John Oliver gave his hilarious take on the issue on his TV show, Last Week Tonight, even mentioning the bribery scandal of former Philadelphia traffic court judge Willie Singletary.

Pennsylvania is one of just six states that elect all of their judges through partisan political elections.  Judges should not be forced into fundraising roles and political party labels.  Running in an election encourages these judges to act like politicians rather than independent, arbiters of the law.  Judges should be treated differently than politicians because the judicial branch is different than the others.

Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts advocates for merit selection of appellate judges.  A 2010 scientific poll of likely voters, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, showed that 62% of Pennsylvanians were in favor of replacing the current appellate judicial election system with merit selection.

To cast your vote for the merit selection of judges in the PoliticsPA poll, follow this link.

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Feb 24 2015

John Oliver Explains Why Judicial Elections are Harmful for American Democracy

On this week’s episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver took on the topic of judicial elections, referring to them as a “horrible spectacle.” John Oliver began his segment with a discussion of Alabama’s Chief Justice Roy Moore, who has ordered state judges to ignore a federal ruling that would allow same-sex couples to marry. Justice Moore was elected to his position, as Oliver points out.

39 states in the U.S. hold judicial elections. No other country holds judicial elections on the same scale as the United States, except Bolivia, as Oliver points out. Most judges in the U.S. run unopposed.

One of the major problems with judicial elections that Oliver discusses involves advertising. Studies have shown that judges are likely to rule more harshly against criminal defendants to protect themselves from future judicial attack ads that may suggest they are “too soft on crime.” The studies show judges change their behavior in election years and are tougher on crime. Oliver says, “That’s terrifying. You shouldn’t be sitting in a prison going, ‘How did you get 15 months for public urination?’ ‘Well, you know, it was October in an election year. I should have known what I was getting into.’”

Another problem John Oliver takes issue with is lawyers donating to judicial campaigns, which he describes as “the definition of a conflict of interest.” Judges also often accept money from business and special interest groups, which can lead to them voting in favor of those groups in the future (on the Ohio Supreme Court, judges on average vote in favor of those who contribute to them 70% of the time, with one judge voting in favor of his contributors 91% of the time). Oliver is truly disturbed by what he describes as the “shaking down” of lawyers for campaign donations, and the increasing presence of PACs and SuperPACs in judicial elections following the Citizens’ United decision. The result is extremely political elections in what should be a fair and impartial system.

Oliver also took on Philadelphia Traffic Court Judge Willie Singletary in his segment. Oliver showed a 2007 video of Singletary in which he is shown asking a crowd to donate to his campaign in order for them to receive favorable treatment in traffic court. Oliver points out that Singletary was ultimately removed from the bench for showing nude photos of himself to a Traffic Court cashier, calling it a “2012 judicial penis debacle.” Singletary was convicted of lying to the FBI in the recent case regarding Philadelphia Traffic Court Judges accepting bribes in exchange for special treatment in traffic court.

Oliver correctly points out many of the major issues with judicial elections in this country. These issues are particularly relevant in Pennsylvania, which has entirely partisan judicial elections and has encountered numerous judicial scandals recently. Oliver ends his clip by saying, “Faith in a strong, independent judiciary is essential in civilized society. If we’re going to keep electing judges, we may have to alter our idea of what justice is.” He continues, “In fact, at the very least to be a bit more representative, we should tweak the blindfolded lady holding scales, to put a tip jar in her hand and a give her a winking emoji for a face.”

Watch the video below:

Also check out the article.

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Feb 18 2015

Retired Pennsylvania Judges Call for Merit Selection

recent article published in the Allentown Morning Call and authored by former Lehigh County Judge Maxwell E. Davison is calling for merit selection of appellate judges. Judge Davison is joined in his opinion by six other former Pennsylvania judges. Citing numerous reasons for the change, including the recent pornographic email scandal involving former PA Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery, Judge Davison argues that merit selection of appellate judges in Pennsylvania is “long overdue.” We agree.

In the 2009 Pennsylvania Supreme Court race, the two candidates who ran for the bench raised nearly $5 million in support of their campaigns. Judge Davison’s article points out that with three open seats on the Court this year, the money raised and spent is likely to be staggering. When the winner of a seat on Pennsylvania’s highest court is essentially determined by who is able to shell out the most money, justice is not served.

Judge Davison’s article points out that merit selection focuses on qualifications and talent, as opposed to our current system, in which judges are often elected based on arbitrary factors such as their ability to fundraise or their ballot position. Merit selection “removes politics from the courtroom.” Since judges are supposed to be neutral arbiters of the law, most of us can probably agree that the courtroom is no place for politics.

Judge Davison discusses the merit selection system, which would consist of a nominating commission whose job would be to screen, evaluate, and recommend candidates for service. The commission would be comprised of men and women from diverse backgrounds across the state (the article says the commission would contain members of the legislature, which we do not advocate for at PMC). The governor would then nominate a candidate from the list, and the candidate would then be confirmed by the senate. The public would be able to vote for judges in retention elections after a number of years. Judge Davison also discusses how each candidate would be required to possess certain minimum qualifications, such as having at least ten years of legal experience (PA currently has no experience requirements for those who wish to run for judge).

Pennsylvania is one of six states that chooses all its judges in entirely partisan judicial elections. The article recognizes, as does PMC, that no system is perfect. But with numerous courtroom scandals that have recently occurred in Pennsylvania, and money spent on elections ever-increasing, there has to be a better way than partisan elections. Who would better understand the problems with our current system than former judges who participated in it? Pennsylvania citizens should not feel as though justice can be purchased through generous campaign donations. Judges should not engage in campaigning and fundraising. It is time that Pennsylvania listens to Judge Davison and other former PA judges and implements a merit selection system for choosing appellate judges.

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Feb 18 2015

Low voter information undermines judicial elections 

Judicial elections are traditionally “low-information” ballot races, but a recent University of Akron poll shows that there are consequences to this state of affairs.

Half of all Ohioans polled said they vote less frequently for judges when compared with other offices on the ballot.  Of those, 63 percent said the reason they don’t always vote for judges is because they don’t know enough about the candidates.

When low information yields an even lower turnout, the justice system suffers.  This drop off of voters is especially concerning given the high stakes of judicial decisions.  Few individuals in society wield as much power as those on the bench.  The judge’s gavel is symbolic shorthand for justice and fairness under the law for a reason.  Those who were polled agreed:  76 percent agreed that courts are the “key protector of individual liberty, safety, and property.”  Yet 56 percent said that some of those elected to the bench are unqualified.

In a 2010 poll of Pennsylvania voters, 73 percent responded that they do not believe that the most qualified candidates win elections, and 76 percent believe campaign contributions influence judicial decision-making.

The perception (and all too often, reality) of unqualified justices erodes faith in our criminal justice system. Victims of crime and civil wrongs should be able to have faith that justice is in the right hands. Defendants should have confidence that they will not be unjustly punished.

When judges are selected based on name recognition, fundraising, ballot position, or political party rather than on qualifications and merit, it chips away at the dignity of the judiciary for the many judges that deserve their seat on the bench.

63 percent of Ohioans would consider an alternative to the current judicial selection process.  50 percent of Ohio voters think that the electoral system should be done away with in favor of a merit-based appointment process with retention elections in subsequent years.  In Pennsylvania, 93 percent of voters want the opportunity to reconsider how we select our judges.

An improvement in the judicial selection process will lead to much-needed gains in public confidence in the judiciary.

In Pennsylvania, recent scandals have tarnished the reputation of the state courts.  The problems familiar to Pennsylvanians are a byproduct of an electoral system that values campaigning and fundraising over the fundamental qualities of fairness, honesty, sound judgment, and impartiality that a judge should have.

An amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution instituting the selection of justices based on merit, rather than partisan politics, will go a long way towards restoring the reputation of the courts.

Pennsylvanians deserve it.


For the full poll results from the University of Akron’s Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics, click here.

For more information, see here and here.


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Jan 21 2015

Judicial Elections in a Post-Citizens United Era

Recent studies have shown that Citizens United likely has had a tremendous impact on judicial elections. Since the US Supreme Court’s decision in 2010, judicial campaign spending has increased at an alarming rate. In the 2011-2012 election cycle, $24.1 million was spent on state court races, which was an increase in more than $11 million since the 2007-2008 cycle. Much of the spending comes from outside, special interest donors. Smaller judicial races have become particularly attractive for these donors, since judges have the power to influence ideological issues such as abortion or business regulations.

What does this increase in spending from outside groups mean? A report issued by the American Constitution Society found that ads that are paid for by outside groups are generally negative, and that these negative ads can actually have an effect on judges’ rulings. This is largely true for criminal cases. Many of the ads play on television and focus on judges being “too soft on crime,” and use examples such as judges giving lenient sentences to child molesters or murderers. The American Constitution Society’s study found that the increase in negative ads on television correlates with a seven percent decrease in judges’ voting in favor of criminal defendants. Judges are also likely to issue harsher sentences, according to an analysis published by The Review of Economics and Statistics. The study showed that Washington State judges who were soon facing re-election issued sentences to criminal defendants that were 10% longer at the end of their judicial cycle, as opposed to at the beginning.

The increased spending has been shown to affect cases outside the criminal arena as well. Studies have shown that when lawyers or business interests contribute to a judge’s campaign, that judge is more likely to issue them favorable decisions in the future. In addition, one study found that state supreme court justices who receive at least 25% of their campaign contributions from business interests, later ruled in favor of business interests in approximately 62% of their cases.

All that being said, these problems could be avoided entirely if rather than having judicial elections, we moved to a merit selection system. Pennsylvania is one of six states that elect all our judges partisan judicial elections. With the issues that judicial elections present, and studies suggesting that judicial campaigning can have a real impact on judges’ decisions, what better time for change than now? Five years after Citizens United, the results are in. Judicial elections are not working. It is time to move for merit selection in Pennsylvania.

For more information, see here, here, here, and here.

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Dec 02 2014

2014 Judicial Election Recap

Published by under Judicial Elections

On Tuesday, November 4th, Supreme Court justices in 22 states were on the ballot, with retention elections in 14 states.  In many states, the judicial elections were expensive, negative, and bitterly partisan.

Perhaps the clearest trend to emerge from the 2014 elections is the increasing role of money in judicial elections.  For television ads alone, $13.8 million was spent this year on state Supreme Court races.  59% of this money came from outside special interest groups or a political party.

In Illinois, a retention election turned into a “brawl between special interests and partisans.

In Kansas, TV ads attacked two incumbent Supreme Court justices as being “soft on crime” and “liberal” for their votes in a case vacating a death penalty conviction, even though the court’s ruling was a bipartisan, 6-1 vote.

North Carolina just had their first judicial election without a public financing system.  Not surprisingly, at $5.2 million spent, it was by far the most expensive Supreme Court election in the state’s history.

In Montana, likewise, record TV ad spending led to a race fraught by negativity.

In one Montana Supreme Court race, 87% of TV ad spending came from special interest groups outside of the state.

Retention elections should be about the qualifications of the judge to continue to serve on the bench. They should not serve as a proxy for a referendum on an unpopular ruling.  Nor should they be a way for outside interests to drown out the interests of voters and their crucial decisions on whether a judge is qualified enough to rule fairly and serve ethically.

For candidates and incumbent judges facing retention, unbridled spending on judicial races creates pressures to avoid political attack or win favor of those with the money and connections necessary to get them elected.  These are perverse incentives.  A November 2nd New York Times editorial highlighted the issue, calling money and judges a “bad mix.”   A 2013 American Constitution Society study found “a significant relationship between business groups contributions to state Supreme Court justices and the voting of these justices in cases involving business matters.”

Judges should be insulated from the political headaches of the other branches of government.  Most judges don’t want to campaign — they would much rather focus on the cases before them.  But with increasing spending by outside groups seeking to change the political makeup of courts around the country, judges are forced into the fundraising, speech-giving, coalition-building roles usually ascribed to legislators and executives.

The largest takeaway from the 2014 elections may be this: voters don’t want to treat judges like politicians.  In each and every one of the races this month in which outside interests attempted to unseat incumbent judges by pressuring them politically, the incumbent kept his or her seat.

The message of 2014 is that money and politics don’t belong in the judicial arena.  In the future, let’s make sure that judges in Pennsylvania and elsewhere get their jobs based on qualifications, not politics.  And in retention elections, we as voters can and should continue to see past the transparent efforts of outside groups to oust qualified judges as retribution for unpopular opinions.  After all, the best judges are those willing to forgo any considerations of how popular a legal decision may be.  Rather, they focus on what is right by the Constitution and the laws of the land.  That is the standard that citizens should keep in mind for our judiciary.

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Sep 10 2014

Names Should Not Be the Name of the Game

An editorial by Brent Larkin at the Northeast Ohio Media Group laments the state of the judicial election process in Ohio.  He writes about the bottom-of-the-ballot matchup between two Cuyahoga County Common Pleas candidates with near-“royal” names.

McMonagle vs. Gallagher.  In the red corner, the son of the incumbent, the beneficiary of a 15-1 McMonagle family record in Ohio judicial elections dating back to 1966.  In the blue corner, the niece of an appellate judge in the Ohio’s 8th district, based in Cleveland.  In fact,  the Gallagher name is so well known and liked in that district that fully 25% of the judges on the bench there share the last name.  That’s three out of twelve , including two Eileen Gallaghers.  Bushes, Kennedys – step aside.

Larkin’s point is not that this is the premier race of the 2014 political season.  On the contrary, voters in Cuyahoga County have 21 other races to decide before they even reach this one on their ballots.  There are 59 elected judgeships in the county – a lot for busy voters to keep track of.  But when they get to the polls, Larkin fears, “few things matter less to the electorate than qualification,” and “nothing matters more to them than a candidate’s last name.”

This isn’t a unique problem to Ohio, of course.  Just look at Pennsylvania. Our judges are often elected for arbitrary reasons  – whether it is because of their last names, party affiliations, connections to the right people, or the resources in their campaign coffers.  This leads to judges that are often under-qualified or unqualified because of a system that thrusts them into roles of immense power over the day-to-day lives of citizens.

Of course, there are plenty of judges who are worthy of the bench.  But all too often voters lack the information to ask the right questions.  How much experience does a judicial candidate have? What are their stances on important issues?  Do they display the work ethic, efficiency, temperament, and respect for the law that a successful and fair judge needs?

The system of electing judges in Pennsylvania perpetuates low-information, “sound-bite” voting and rewards many of the candidates that would be the most burdened if information about them were to come to light, whether to voters or to an independent commission.  Sunlight, as the saying goes, is the best of disinfectants.

The best way to elect an independent and impartial judiciary in Pennsylvania is to reward candidates based on merit, not on a wildcard such as last name. Public trust in the judiciary is crucial, and low-turnout elections don’t usually produce judges worthy of the confidence of the citizenry.

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Aug 05 2014

Expensive Judicial Elections are an Assault on Our Courts

Published by under Judicial Elections

Tennessee courts are specifically tasked with deciding “on the constitutionality of legislation passed by the General Assembly” and to “consider the legality of administrative policies and regulations.”  Why then, are so many politically motivated groups spending so much campaign cash prior to the upcoming Tennessee Supreme Court retention elections?

The answer seems to be related to the Supreme Court justices appointing an attorney general who did not join other attorney generals in a lawsuit opposing the Affordable Care Act. For the record, once the Tennessee Supreme Court appoints an Attorney General, the Attorney General is completely independent and does not answer to the Court.

Regardless of the underlying motivations, the amount of money spent in an attempt to influence the retention elections is emblematic of recent trends of increasingly political and expensive judicial elections. According to Justice at Stake, the Tennessee Supreme Court retention election has set a record by exceeding $500,000 in television advertisement spending.  Tennessee Forum, a group that opposes retaining the three justices up for election, has contributed $245,000.  Likewise, Keep Tennessee Courts Fair, a group that supports retaining the three justices, has given a considerable contribution amounting to $210,000.

Industrialists Charles and David Koch have even thrown their hats in the ring by having their organization, Americans for Prosperity, contribute significant amounts to the campaign to unseat the three justices.

Judges should be chosen (and retained) based on their qualifications including legal experience, judicial temperament, and quality of their decisions. Choosing judges (or choosing whether to retain judges) through a political process for a nonpartisan job is nonsensical.

Pennsylvania needs to start learning from the examples of states like Tennessee. We need to protect our courts from special interests and politicians that see them as just another tool in the political arsenal. It’s time for Harrisburg to stand up to entrenched special interests and have a serious discussion about commonsense reforms like merit selection.

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Jun 27 2014

In the Right Spotlight

Can you name at least two candidates in any of the recent judicial elections in your district or state? Do you know something meaningful about the platform they ran on? Even if you can answer the first question, the second question might leave you stumped.

Public offices such as governor, representative and senator get more than their share of the media’s attention. When it comes to meaningful coverage of judicial elections, however, the public is often left in the dark. In the few cases when judicial elections gain wide spread media attention, it is usually for the wrong reasons, as was the case for the recent Supreme Court race in North Carolina. So then, the public is either not fully aware of judicial candidates or are left to make their decisions on television ads funded by partisan interest groups. In both cases, the public suffers.

Pennsylvania is currently one of only six states that elect all their judges in partisan elections. With the growing involvement of interest groups and their money, judicial campaigns are beginning to look more and more like political campaigns. Issues relevant to the bench, such as the candidate’s experience and track record of ruling by the law, are replaced by negative attacks on opponents and the political affiliation of candidates.

Compared to political leaders, judges are the public officials that citizens are most likely to come in direct contact with in their everyday lives. Judges play the important role of upholding the rule of law and making sure that justice is fairly and equally enacted amongst all. With such an important responsibility placed upon judges, it becomes crucial that there be an effective and reliable system in place to ensure that the best-qualified candidates are entrusted with carrying out the duties of the bench. This is where merit selection comes in.

Rather than continue the politicization of judicial elections, merit selection allows for candidates to be considered for and appointed to judgeships based on their qualifications and proven track record. Through nominating commissions that thoroughly vet candidates and retention elections, merit selection provides the public with opportunities for engaged participation in choosing judges, rather than relying on thirty second attack ads.

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May 29 2014

Political Justice

Across the country, politics is quickly rearing its head in the nation’s courtrooms. Lawmakers are infringing more and more upon the independence of the judiciary. Lawmakers in Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas have introduced bills that limit the power of the judiciary following unpopular decisions.

This phenomenon is made worse by increases in partisan financial support for judicial elections, which are also threatening the independence of the judiciary. Current judicial elections make it nearly impossible for judicial candidates to run without substantial donations to fund their campaigns. This has allowed partisan and special interest groups to have more influence on judicial elections through their funding of candidates. In North Carolina alone, special interest groups spent more than $1.3 million on the Supreme Court race, with $900,000 contributed from the Republican State Leadership Committee being used in attack adds against incumbent Supreme Court Justice Robin Hudson.

A recent study by Center for American Progress reports that states have failed to update their judicial recusal rules to reflect potential conflict of interests resulting from campaign contributions.

Political pressure coupled with the increasing campaign contributions leaves our judiciaries in precarious situations. Editorials in The Washington Post and The New York Times highlight the growing concern over the loss of judicial independence. The judiciary has long been seen as the branch of government most isolated from the partisan bickering of politics. Judges are expected to rule in accordance with the law, safe from threats of retaliation from lawmakers. It is this separation of powers and the belief in the objectivity of the law, which has made our judicial system what is today. If events like those in Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas continue, our proud history of an independent judiciary could be at risk.

One way to push back against the pressure of politics and money is to change the way we select our judges. Moving from Pennsylvania’s current system of expensive, partisan judicial elections to the merit selection of judges would curb the influence of money and politics from our courts. Merit selection takes into account the candidate’s ability to uphold the rule of law rather than the candidate’s war chest or political affiliation. In merit selection, a nomination commission of private citizens vets judicial candidates, with the most qualified candidates being recommended to the governor for approval and senate confirmation. Once confirmed, judges will sit for a shortened term before facing voters in a yes/no retention election to determine if they are fulfilling their responsibilities as judges. This helps limit the pressures of politicians and their checkbooks that our judges currently face.

The events in Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas should serve as a warning that we need to take action to maintain the integrity of our judiciary. Here in Pennsylvania, PMC is currently pushing for legislation to implement judicial merit selection, protecting both the integrity of our judges and our justice system. We need an independent justice system that works for the people––not the politicians–– and merit selection is the best way to achieve that goal.

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