Archive for the 'Opinion' 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.”

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Dec 17 2012

Merit Selection System Preserves Competition

Published by under Opinion

According to an op-ed published in the Lawrence Journal-World, Lawton R. Nuss, Chief Justice of the Kansas Supreme Court, the competition inherent in a merit selection system produces the kind of “winners” that Americans love.
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Kansas currently selects judges for the Kansas Supreme Court and the Kansas Court of Appeals through a merit selection process where a nine member nominating commission provides the governor with a short list of names from which he or she must appoint a judge. The judge will then stand for periodic retention elections. Kansas legislators and lawyers are currently debating the best composition of the nominating commission, which is currently made up of five lawyers elected by the bar association with the remaining four members appointed by the governor.

In the op-ed, Justice Nuss details his lengthy road to becoming a Supreme Court justice. “I tried to improve my competitiveness,” Justice Nuss said.  “To hone my writing and analytical skills, I researched and wrote several legal articles for publication and volunteered to author appellate briefs for other lawyers. To sharpen my understanding of the law’s application to the real world, I sought more cases to try to Kansas juries. To achieve a broader perspective of the law,

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I expanded my law practice to include additional legal fields.”

Notably, neither political connections nor fundraising prowess were cited as reasons for Justice Nuss’s nomination to the Kansas Supreme Court. Instead, the nominating commission and the governor focused solely on the skills that made him qualified to be a fair and impartial arbiter of justice. This is the power of a merit selection system. It is time for Pennsylvanians to take politics out of the courts in order to ensure that only the most qualified, fair and impartial judges preside over cases.


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Sep 06 2012

Unopposed Judicial Elections Limit Meaningful Voter Participation

Published by under Opinion

Opponents of Merit Selection often argue that the benefit of judicial elections lies in the public vetting that judges and judicial candidates undergo during their campaigns. However, as noted in an editorial in the Columbus Dispatch, where judicial candidates run unopposed, the public is deprived of their ability to meaningfully participate in judicial selection.

This phenomenon is happening more frequently in cheapest viagra states with judicial elections, even though there is certainly no dearth of

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qualified lawyers who would make excellent judges. As a result, voters are not given any meaningful choice in the elections.  For example, in the 2009 Democratic primary for the electronic cigarettes the Electronic Cigarettes Pennsylvania Supreme Court vacancy, only one candidate was on the ballot.  Surely, other lower court judges and lawyers are qualified to serve on the Supreme Court, yet none of them were on the ballot.

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Merit Selection removes the necessity of relying on political parties to nominate candidates and limit the options available to voters on election day. In addition, Merit Selection offers several opportunities for members of the public to weigh in on the candidates who are applying for — or who are nominated to — the judicial vacancies.  This offers more choice to the voters than an election with only one candidate.


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Aug 07 2012

Meaningful Voter Participation Lacking in Judicial Elections

Published by under Opinion

An article in the Miami Herald underlines one of the problems with judicial elections: the lack of meaningful voter participation. In the last Florida election, less than 15% of the electorate voted in the judicial election. Further, of the approximately 215,000 people who voted in Miami-Dade County, roughly 40,000 of them failed to vote for the judges on the ballot.

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The article posits several causes of the lack of meaningful voter participation, including the fact that judicial ethics rules forbid judges from making campaign promises. Although Florida judges are permitted to discuss their personal views on “hot-button issues” such as abortion and the death penalty, few judges do. This makes it harder for voters to know much about the judicial candidates. In addition, many voters choose judges based on factors such as name recognition, assumptions of the candidate’s race/background/ethnicity based on their name or current position on the bench.

The article argues that a successful judicial campaign relies on endorsements, financing, and good fortune in the guise of the right last name, favorable ballot position or having been previously elected to the bench. It is notable that reliance on these factors essentially means that judges are not elected based on their qualifications to serve as fair and impartial arbiters of justice.

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Judges play too crucial of a role in our society to be selected without meaningful evaluation of their qualifications. In states with Merit Selection, a nominating commission thoroughly vets judicial candidates and a judge is chosen by the governor from a short list provided by the nominating body.  In

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many states, the Senate must confirm the nominee.  After a short term, the public votes in a retention election. This allows voters to evaluate judges based on their performance and leads to meaningful voter participation.

In addition to voting in the retention election, Merit Selection provides numerous opportunities for the public to give their input. Voters sit on the nominating commission, provide information to the commission, give feedback to the governor on the short list of nominees, and testify before the senate during the confirmation process.

Meaningful voter participation must be a crucial element in a successful judicial selection process. Clearly, judicial elections do not provide that opportunity.


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Jun 28 2012

The Real Reasons Pennsylvanians Want to Find a New Way to Select Judges

Published by under Opinion

In a letter published in the Harrisburg Patriot-News, PMC’s Lynn  A. Marks points out the problems in Dan Pero’s recent op-ed about Merit Selection.  Pero focused on the fact that even Merit Selection systems cannot totally eliminate politics from judicial selection. While conceding this point, Marks pointed out the big issues that Pero ignores and the real reasons Pennsylvanians want to find a new way to select judges:

Seventy-six percent of surveyed Pennsylvanians believe that campaign contributions affect judicial decision-making. In other words, the public believes justice is for sale. The same survey found that 73 percent believe that the most qualified candidates do not win judicial elections. This is the release of hgh at orgasem not HGH surprising. Elections are designed to reward the best campaigners and fundraisers, not the most qualified candidates.

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Marks further notes that by tabling the Merit Selection legislation, the House Judiciary Committee essentially voted against allowing the people of Pennsylvania to decide whether to change how we select appellate judges.  93% of surveyed Pennsylvanians want the opportunity to decide. Pero thinks the

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legislature serves the voters by tabling legislation and keeping the issue bottled in committee.  We disagree and  believe the legislature can show voters it trusts them by giving them the opportunity to decide for themselves whether there is a better way to choose judges.

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Jun 26 2012

Leaders Should Act to "Benefit Our Entire State"

Published by under Opinion

A column in the Holland Sentinel opines about the state of Michigan courts. Four years ago, Michigan was ranked last in a grading of the nation’s supreme courts conducted by the University of Chicago Law School. Michigan’s ranking was partly a reflection of its lack

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of judicial independence.

In response to the court’s poor perception, a Michigan Judicial Selection Task Force was created. The bipartisan task force was made up of more than 20 respected residents of the state and set out to identify the problems plaguing Michigan’s judicial system and solutions to address those issues. The group’s report is out now, and the results are striking.

The task force discovered that judicial elections in the state are expensive, secretive, tinged with favoritism, and susceptible to partisan politics. The group ultimately reached two unanimous recommendations: 1. Judicial elections should be open and non-partisan, and 2. All judicial campaign contributions should be publicly reported.

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While these online blackjack vs recommendations top online blackjack sites will help improve the election process, some of the task force members felt that further action was needed and favored switching from judicial elections to a Merit Selection system. Changing to a system where a screening commission would vet candidate qualifications for gubernatorial appointments that are subject to the approval of the legislature requires that the Michigan constitution be amended.

The column concludes with disappointment at the fact that the task force’s recommendations haven’t been seriously considered by leaders in the state. Nevertheless, these suggestions have brought the need for reform to the forefront.

Because the Commonwealth also uses partisan judicial elections to choose our judges, Pennsylvania’s judicial system is susceptible to the same troubles that afflict Michigan’s courts. Like Michigan, proponents of judicial selection reform have suggested amending the Pennsylvania constitution to switch to a Merit Selection system. Like Michigan, Pennsylvanians are hopeful that our legislative leaders will “be willing to do something to benefit our entire state.”

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Jun 11 2012

It is Time to Let the Voters Decide

An editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer highlights the fact that special interest groups that oppose Merit Selection legislation have betrayed the voters whose rights they claim to protect:

[T]he trial lawyers, unions, gun-rights advocates, and abortion foes who continue to oppose reforms that would take appellate-court judges out of partisan elections achieved their victory by denying voters the very chance to air their views.

Changing to Merit Selection requires a constitutional amendment, a long process that culminates in a referendum, a vote of the people.  In other words, only the voters can change how we select appellate court judges.

Contrast that open and democratic proposal with what happened as special-interest groups lobbied lawmakers with the apparent view that elections are the surest way to pick jurists favorable to them.

Last week, the Merit Selection legislation was tabled in a narrow procedural vote in the House Judiciary Committee; the bill never received an up-down vote and did not get an opportunity to reach the whole House.

Voters should be furious with such legislative bullying, given that the statewide reform group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts says more than nine out of 10 state residents want the chance to vote on the issue. As PMC and other supporters of merit selection — including the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, and Philadelphia Bar Association — realize, judicial elections undermine public trust in the courts because candidates raise money from lawyers and other interest groups that may appear before them.

The editorial  concludes with disbelief that the voters are not being given the opportunity to decide this issue, despite a sitting Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice having been indicted for alleged violations of campaign laws:

How anyone could defend a system of picking judges that produces corruption of the type alleged against Melvin is a mystery. Even more troubling is the fact that powerful forces in the state don’t even want to let voters make up their own minds on this critical court reform.

We agree: it is time to let the voters decide.



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Jun 05 2012

Let the People Decide

Published by under Opinion

In an op-ed in the Harrisburg Patriot-News, PMC today calls for the state legislature to begin the process of giving the people of Pennsylvania the opportunity to decide whether there is a better way to select appellate court judges. The editorial notes the recent scandals that have rocked our state courts, including the indictment of a sitting Supreme Court justice for illegal campaign practices, and highlights the growing dissatisfaction with judicial elections:

A 2010 public opinion survey of Pennsylvania voters reflected deep distrust of the judicial election system: 76 percent believe that campaign contributions influence judges’ decisions; only 21 percent believe the most qualified candidates win judicial elections.

These staggering numbers reflect a lack of faith that elections produce qualified, fair and impartial judges. Research demonstrates widespread belief that “justice is for sale” to campaign contributors with deep pockets.

The editorial

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points out that:

It has been more than 40 years since the public had the chance to weigh in on how to choose our judges. In the 2010 statewide poll, 93 percent responded that Pennsylvanians should have the right to vote on this issue.

Pennsylvanians should not have to accept a system they believe is broken. It is time to give voters the opportunity to decide whether there is a better way to choose appellate court judges. Our legislators should give the public that opportunity. 

Today, the House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote on H.B. 1815, which would amend the constitution to change from electing appellate judges to using a Merit Selection system.  A positive vote will send the bill to the House Floor. But this is only the first step in a lengthy process.  Amending the constitution takes much time and deliberation — two successive legislatures must pass identical legislation.  If that happens, the people must vote in a referendum to amend the constitution.  As PMC points out in the editorial, “our constitution can change only if the people of Pennsylvania vote to change it.”

We believe it is time for Pennsylvanians to have that opportunity.  We hope the legislature will give it to them.

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May 23 2012

Philadelphia Daily News: Merit Selection Legislation Should be “Fast-Tracked”

According to the Philadelphia Daily News, the indictment and suspension of Justice Joan Orie Melvin “puts another big fat bow on the move to have judges appointed on merit rather than elected”.  Justice Orie Melvin was indicted last week on charges that she used her state-funded judicial staff on her 2003 and 2009 campaigns for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The charges cast a “dark shadow” over the Court and serve to decrease public confidence in the Pennsylvania judicial system.

The editorial points out that the Pennsylvania judicial system has weathered a number of scandals in the past few years that “have been testament to the dangers of subjecting judges to a partisan political process that requires lots of money to succeed.” Requiring judges to campaign for their seats creates the appearance of impropriety since they must solicit campaign contributions from individuals and organizations that often appear in front of them.

Additionally, as the grand jury presentment regarding Justice Orie Melvin demonstrates, campaigning is a full time job.  “The testimony in this latest grand jury report paints a disheartening picture of a judicial office, not as the sanctuary of justice, fairness and responsibility, but, rather, as a never-ending machine of raising money, campaigning and doing whatever is necessary to stay in office.” Merit Selection would allow judges to focus on their judicial and administrative duties rather than on the requirements of a campaign.

The time is ripe for Merit Selection. We agree with the Daily News that the House Judiciary Committee members should take whatever steps necessary to fast-track the pending legislation and give Pennsylvanians the right to choose whether we change the way we select judges.

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