May 07 2014

Politicians in Robes?

Great news for state-level Republican judicial candidates throughout the country: they could be seeing a lot more financial support from their party! The Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) announced its plans to launch the Judicial Fairness Initiative tasked with providing monetary support for judge candidates with conservative ideology.

Specifically, the Judicial Fairness Initiative plans to help mobilize voters, fund campaigns, and gather resources to help in judicial elections. While Matt Walter, president of RSLC, has not announced a set budget for the program, the group is estimated to spend more than $5 million on judicial campaigns this year alone.

Most recently, the RSLC had gained national attention with its involvement in the North Carolina Supreme Court race. The group contributed over $600,000 to the conservative Justice for All NC PAC. Justice for All NC then went on to release a series of ads against incumbent Justice Robin Hudson suggesting her of siding with ‘child predators’ after her dissenting opinion in a case over electronic monitoring of child molesters.

However, Republicans are not the only ones throwing money behind judicial candidates. Groups and individuals from across the political spectrum, including left-leaning Human Rights Watch, are providing financial support for their favored judicial candidates. Since very few states have laws requiring judges to recuse themselves in cases involving parties that contributed to their election, it presents a public perception of impartiality when judges preside over such cases.

Current judicial elections risk turning the judiciary into another partisan political battleground. When partisan political groups support judges, either financially or through endorsements, the perception of a fair and impartial judiciary is tainted. Judges then risk being seen as ruling in line with their political supporters rather than through the objective interpretation of the law. As Alicia Bannon, of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU law school accurately states, the politicization of judicial elections risks turning judges into ‘politicians with robes.’ With a judiciary that depends heavily on public trust, judges cannot risk the perception of impropriety.

The most appropriate way to curb the influence of politics from the judiciary is through merit selection. Merit selection depoliticizes judges by removing the pressure on judges to act in accordance to a political ideology in return for campaign donations and support. Instead, merit selection relies on the nomination of qualified judge candidates by a bipartisan citizen committee for gubernatorial approval and Senate confirmation. This process ensures the selection of judges based on their earned credentials, not their political allegiance.

Pennsylvania can avoid the partisan influence of the RSLC and other groups by supporting efforts to move from contested elections of judges to the merit selection of judges. We all deserve a court system we have confidence in to act in accordance with the law, rather than with politics. Let the politicians keep their suits; we prefer our judges in robes.

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Apr 22 2014

Big Money Donors Shaking the Public’s Faith in an Independent Judiciary

Published by under Merit Selection

There is no doubt that when a big money donor exchanges their financial support for a judicial candidate’s political loyalty, “actual bias or the appearance of bias comes into question,” according to Judge David Stewart, retired executive director of the Arkansas Judicial Discipline  and Disability Commission.  Judge Stewart cites the example of the recently formed Americans for Judicial Excellence PAC, whose mission is to elect judges who represent the policy positions taken by the current conservative Republican Party majorities in the Arkansas legislature.  Only after judicial candidates have sworn fealty to the Republican Party’s core principles will they be invited to speak to the PAC and receive their endorsement and hefty monetary contributions.


A judge’s decision-making should be unbiased, based on the law and facts before them, not the political platforms of any party.  By requiring political allegiance in exchange for campaign contributions “not only does the judge become subject to actual impropriety, [but] the appearance of impropriety can be huge.”  Regardless of whether the judge is actually biased, how can the public have any “faith that the judge in question can be trusted to make a decision independent of the influence of money, or his quirky biases heretofore exhibited[?]”  Simply stated, it shakes the public’s faith in the independence of the judiciary.  For that reason alone, judges cannot and should not be subject to the political whims of big money donors.


The grave concerns raised by Judge Stewart are not isolated to Arkansas.  In a post Citizens United v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FEC world, where donors can spend enormous amounts of money to support the “right” judicial candidate, these same problems are lurking just around the corner in any state where judicial elections are held.  States like Pennsylvania, which have partisan judicial election systems, are at the greatest risk of a rising lack of public confidence in an independent judiciary due to campaign contributions.  These expensive and often messy partisan judicial elections shift the focus away from putting the most qualified candidate on the bench, but instead places it on who can be the most effective fundraiser and campaigner.


Merit selection is a commonsense approach to minimizing the negative effects of campaign contributions in judicial selection.  By selecting our judges through merit selection the need to stockpile donations and amass small fortunes from PACs becomes moot.  Instead of a heated campaign, the likes of which we generally expect to find between legislative or executive candidates, merit selection provides for an independent bipartisan citizens committee that evaluates and recommends the most qualified candidates to the governor for nomination.  Through this process, merit selection ensures that the seats on the bench are filled with candidates who are most qualified and not simply those with the biggest wallet.  This helps to restore the public’s confidence in an independent judiciary capable of rendering objective and unbiased decisions, free from the taint of campaign contributions.


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Apr 16 2014

Politics Over Principles in Race for Chief Justice

The race for North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice got a little more testy this weekend, as Republican candidates for the seat, Superior Court Judge Ola Mae Lewis, and Supreme Court Justice Mark Martin, traded barbs at a political event. Judge Lewis called into question the high court’s productivity, specifically highlighting that her opponent, Justice Martin had only written 5 opinions in the previous year. Conversely, Justice Martin touted his experience on the court, while taking a veiled swipe at Judge Lewis’s Republican bonafides, based on her past work for Democrats.


Although this back and forth may have been great political theater, it bears no relation and has nothing to do with who will make the best Chief Justice. The job of a judge is to uphold the law and protect the constitution – not to keep campaign promises or represent the interests of the voters who elected them. No matter who wins on election day, the citizens of North Carolina lose, because their new Chief Justice will be the best politician, not necessarily the best Chief Justice.


Here in Pennsylvania, we too use elections to select our judges. However, we shouldn’t have to make the same mistakes as North Carolina in order to recognize the need to change our system.


Instead of constantly putting judicial candidates through the rigor of meaningless campaigning, judges should be selected based on their qualifications alone. Moving to a merit selection system does just that. In addition to removing the money and negative campaigning components of electing judges, merit selection allows potential judges to be thoroughly vetted and chosen based on their qualifications, experience, and reputation for honesty, integrity and fairness. Most importantly, however, merit selection benefits Pennsylvania and the nation, by ensuring a more independent and impartial judiciary, free from the perception of bias that comes with expensive, partisan judicial elections.


It’s time to take campaigning out of judicial selection and choose our judges based on their merit.

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Apr 08 2014

What Does McCutcheon Mean For Judicial Races?

The U.S. Supreme Court recently decided McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (FEC), striking down aggregate limits on contributions to political candidates and party committees. Although the focus of this ruling was on federal election law, it has serious implications of state campaigns as well, particularly state judicial campaigns.


As a result of this ruling, individuals no longer have to pick and choose which campaigns to give to and whether to give to national parties at all, for fear of hitting their aggregate contribution limit. Now individual donors can give the maximum contribution to their national party and as many candidates as they want. With this increased money going to national parties, state party committees will most likely also see an increase in donations. It is this increase to state party coffers that will augment the already insidious effect of money in selecting judges.


In addition to the new money this ruling allows to flow into judicial campaigns, it also establishes a framework through which big spenders may challenge state campaign finance laws, and infuse even more money into judicial elections. The Supreme Court couched its decision on first amendment principles. The plaintiff successfully argued that the FEC’s aggregate limits on political contributions infringed on his right to free speech. So although this particular ruling only applies to federal elections, freedom of speech is a right that all citizens enjoy. Any states with similar limits in their campaign finance laws have officially been put on notice.


The amount of money that will flow into judicial races as a result of this ruling makes it more important than ever that Pennsylvania change its judicial selection model. We need to protect the integrity of the judiciary by eliminating the perception that justice is for sale. We can do this if we choose to select our judges based on merit, not money.

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Apr 08 2014

A Better Way to Pick Judges

Published by under Merit Selection

It’s great to be a legislator in Virginia. You have control over judicial appointments and if you ever get bored in the General Assembly, there’s likely a cushy judgeship waiting for you.

Virginia is one of only two states in which judicial appointments are decided entirely by the legislature. This method of judicial selection has resulted in power politics spilling over into the states’ courtrooms.

In 2008, Norfolk County was left with three vacant judgeships for months as a result of a dispute between Sens. Ken Stolle and Yvonne Miller. A similar incident occurred in 2012 when conservative lawmakers delayed the nomination of Tracy Thorne-Begland’s nomination to Richmond’s General District Court because he was openly gay.

Additionally, Virginia lawmakers have been making courtrooms their retirement destinations. Judges are generally reappointed until they retire, and then enjoy a generous salary and state benefits. Lawmakers often trade-in their positions in the legislature for a cushy spot on the bench, further adding to the perception of an unfair judiciary.

Despite its apparent flaws, Virginia lawmakers have been unwilling to enact any changes to the states judicial election process. A measure that would bar legislators from accepting judicial appointments within four years of leaving the General Assembly was rejected. However, the General Assembly did approve the creation of twenty-seven new judgeships.

Judicial selection practices, such as the one in Virginia, create a ‘patronage’ system in which legislators have considerable control over judicial appointments. Legislators are given indirect control of the courts by their ability to choose judges. Gaining a judicial appointment then relies upon the “connections” that a candidate has in the legislature rather than his or her qualifications.

A better way of appointing judges is through merit selection. Under merit selection, judges are evaluated based solely on their credentials by a bipartisan citizen’s nominating commission consisting of lawyers and nonlawyers, which represent the diversity of the state. Once candidates have been screened, a short list is then sent to the governor who must nominate one of the individuals on the list. The judicial nominee must be confirmed by the Senate and then will sit for a shortened term before facing the public in a yes/no retention election. In this manner, nominees are chosen not for their personal relationships, but rather for their qualifications, experience and ability to fairly uphold the law. Merit selection increases public confidence in the judiciary.

Pennsylvania should see Virginia as a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of mixing politics with the judiciary. The current expensive, partisan election of Pennsylvania judges creates a negative public perception of politics influencing a supposedly independent and impartial judiciary. In order for Pennsylvania to preserve the public confidence of its judiciary, it needs to implement merit selection.

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Mar 26 2014

Arkansas’s Judicial Business

Arkansas Circuit Judge Mike Maggio recently stepped out of the 2014 race for a seat on the Arkansas Court of Appeals, after it was revealed that he was behind an online pseudonym linked to racist, homophobic, and sexist comments. However, despite the moral turpitude Judge Maggio demonstrated in committing these acts, it is what he did while still in the judicial race that lands him prime real estate on our blog today.


When Judge Maggio was running for reelection, he received at least $10,000 in contributions that were linked to a corporate chain of nursing homes owned by Michael Morton. Just a few days later, Judge Maggio issued a ruling that lowered a damages award against Morton’s company from $5.2 million to $1 million. No wonder the public thinks justice is for sale.


Even if the legal reasoning was sound, there were no errors, and Judge Maggio’s actions were otherwise beyond reproach, his ruling came literally days after receiving the campaign contribution. Regardless of the reality, it certainly “appears” as if Morton was able to spend $10,000 in return for a ruling that saved him over $4 million. Often, this appearance of impropriety is nearly as damaging to the public’s confidence in the courts as actual impropriety. Judicial

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decision-making should not appear to be a business transaction.


Here in Pennsylvania, we too select our judges through expensive, partisan judicial elections. So the same scenario that just occurred in Arkansas could easily arise in Pennsylvania. But why should we let it come to that? If we got rid of judicial elections and selected our judges based on merit, we wouldn’t have to worry about the spectre of campaign contributions influencing judicial decisions. Elections including those for judicial office, are won and lost based solely on the financial wherewithal of the campaign. Merit selection takes money out of the equation and replaces it with an in-depth review of the qualifications and experience of the prospective judge.

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Mar 25 2014

In the Interest of the Law

It’s been said before, ‘merit selection takes power away from the people to choose judges who represent them.’

But, that represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of a judge; judges should not represent the people who voted for them. Judges should represent the law and the ability to decide cases before them impartially.

Judges are expected to decide cases based on the facts and the law, not public opinion or campaign promises. In allowing lawyers, law firms and groups who often appear before the court the ability to donate to judicial campaigns, we risk the public perception that judges rule in favor of their supporters. This creates the impression that justice is for sale.

Merit selection allows citizens the opportunity for more meaningful participation in judicial selection. In reality, how much meaningful information is the public receiving about judicial candidates under the current judicial election system? The public is bombarded with numerous names (many of whom they probably never heard of) and the real worth of a candidate is lost beneath all the flashy political signs and slogans rampant in campaigns.

Under merit selection, the chaos of campaigning is removed thus allowing for more productive interaction between prospective judges and the public. Through the initial merit selection process, only the most qualified of applicants are given consideration for appointments. As members of the nominating commission, citizens are then able to engage in more meaningful consideration of nominees, rather then wading through lists of names. The public may also give input to the Governor before he or she makes the nomination and during the confirmation hearings before the Senate.

Most importantly, retention elections provide the public with another opportunity for engaged participation. Retention elections allow the public to decide whether a judge should stay on the bench based on the judge’s track record, not on his or her campaign capabilities.

The most important thing to remember is that while the public is still engaged through the nominating commission and retention election process, the law is still the primary concern. Both the nominating commission and the retention election is concerned about the ability of candidates to objectively represent the law, not a specific interest group.

In essence, merit selection is not about taking power away from the people, rather it’s about providing the public with the best chance of having a fair and impartial judiciary.

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Mar 24 2014

How Does A Judicial Candidate Get Votes?

Typically, politicians get votes by promising to do something. Legislators might promise to vote for or against a pending bill, while executives might promise to create new jobs, or make the state more business friendly. However, as North Carolina Supreme Court Justice, Robin Hudson, accurately points out, judges aren’t allowed to make promises. With North Carolina’s primary elections, just seven weeks away, judicial candidates have been hard at work struggling to raise money and win votes.


Herein lies one of the problems with judicial elections. When we ask a judicial candidate to campaign in order to become judge, we’re asking that candidate to demonstrate skills that are foreign to the practice and profession of being a judge. Judges don’t represent constituents; instead they administer justice on behalf of their county, state, or nation by deciding cases based on the facts and the law. Although recent changes to the law now allow judicial candidates to express their personal opinions about controversial issues that may come before them, they are still strictly prohibited from promising to rule one way or the other. What’s the point of asking judicial candidates to get their messages out, when the messages are all the same? Practically speaking, all judges can campaign on is their years of experience and their promise to be fair and impartial, so this isn’t really a selling point, it’s the bare minimum.


Judicial candidates also must raise a significant amount of money in order to be competitive in a judicial election. So fundraising is another issue these candidates are dealing with, as to defend against attack ads, they’ve got to spend a significant amount of time fundraising. This is especially difficult for incumbent candidates like North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Cherie Beasley, who says she’s on the road four to five days a week, on top of her duties as a Supreme Court Justice.


Notably, North Carolina’s judicial elections are nonpartisan, so at least judicial candidates there can remain somewhat ideological independent. This is not the case with Pennsylvania.


In Pennsylvania, judicial candidates have the enviable task of convincing voters that they are the fairest, most impartial, most experienced candidates on the ballot. These candidates must do this while also running under the banner of a political party, and raising money from lawyers, law firms and special interest groups that often appear before the court.


Pennsylvanians deserve better.

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Mar 17 2014

One Step Forward for Minnesota and Merit Selection

This week, Minnesota has gotten one step closer to moving to a merit selection system.  In doing so, the state has progressed towards finally putting to bed the partisan-politics-laced, big-money­-fueled judicial election system in their state.  The very same election system which in recent years has plagued judiciaries across the the country and eroded the the public trust in our court system.


So, what happened?  The Minnesota Senate Subcommittee on Elections approved the proposed constitutional amendment to change the state’s judicial election system to a merit selection system and sent it up for a full vote of the Senate Rules Committee.  Specifically, “the proposal calls for gubernatorial appointment of judges from a list of finalists recommended by a merit selection commission, a retention (up or down) election if the judge seeks to stay on the bench, and nonpartisan evaluation of judges’ performance by an independent performance evaluation commission.”  Last year, the House version of the bill was approved in the House Elections Committee and remains pending in the House Judiciary Committee.


Under Minnesota’s current judicial election system, races for judicial seats have become policy battlegrounds, with judicial candidates campaigns’ being bankrolled by corporations, lobbyist groups, trial attorneys, and political action committees.  These are the very groups and individuals who often appear before the these courts.  Obviously, this doesn’t do much for the the public perception of impartiality in judicial decision-making.  With fundraising in the millions, judicial elections now have taken on the character of legislative races, with candidates employing the use of attack ads and running on platforms.  In support of the constitutional amendment, former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Eric Magnuson when addressing legislators said, “A judge can’t run on a platform. That’s antithetical to what a judge does.  A judge decides cases based on the law and facts in front of him or her.”


Like Minnesota, Pennsylvania has a constitutional amendment (House Bill 1848) making its way through the state legislature that would replace judicial elections for all judges to a merit selection system to choose statewide judges.  Backed with bipartisan support, the bill would help ensure that only the most experienced and qualified judges serve on the bench.  A merit selection system is necessary to take judges out of the business of fundraising and partisan politics out of our courtrooms. In doing so, this would be a big step toward restoring the public’s faith in a fair and impartial judiciary, untainted by the bias generated by the current partisan judicial election system.

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Mar 10 2014

Cash Still King in Texas Judicial Elections

What’s the most important qualification a person needs to become a judge? Perhaps a sense of fairness, integrity, or knowledge of the law? Each of these qualifications are certainly important to becoming a judge, however, if former Texas Judge Steven Kirkland’s story is any indication, in Texas the most important qualification is money.


Texas is one of only 6 states (including Pennsylvania) that elects all judges in partisan elections. So when then judge Kirkland ruled against Houston based attorney George Fleming, in a 2011 case, Fleming took advantage of the judicial election system by seeking out and bank rolling a challenger to run against Kirkland in the democratic primary. Fleming’s investment paid off and Kirkland lost.


Money: 1 Judicial Qualifications: 0


Kirkland is currently running for judge in the 113th district in Texas, rather than his old seat in the 215th. Yet once again, Mr Fleming is having none of it. Still incensed about Kirkland’s decision against him, Fleming is currently bank rolling Kirkland’s primary opponent for judgeship in the 113th district of Texas.


The results of this current race remain to be seen, however, that’s hardly the point. Instead what we can learn from Kirkland’s experience, is how judicial elections allow money to skew what it takes to become a judge. Judges should be selected based on qualifications, integrity, and judicial temperament, not campaign acumen or fundraising prowess.


Kirkland may have been the fairest judge, the smartest judge, and demonstrated the most integrity amongst his colleagues. However, because he had the temerity to rule against Fleming, his career was derailed by a mountain of cash and Texans were deprived of a qualified judge.


Although nothing so extreme has happened in Pennsylvania, the expensive partisan judicial election system is ripe for abuse. Here too we can only hope that the judges who manage to raise the most money to get elected, also happen to be the most qualified to serve on the bench.


Or we could select them based on merit.

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