Apr 08 2015
The twelve candidates running for Pennsylvania Supreme Court filed their first financial reports of 2015 yesterday. For candidates and the public, fundraising is a double edged sword. On the one hand, judicial candidates need to raise substantial amounts of money to “send the message ‘I’m a serious candidate,’” according to G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College.
On the other hand, fundraising by judicial candidates undermines public confidence in the judiciary. According to Lynn Marks of PMC “people overwhelmingly think contributors will have a leg up in court.” In a 2013 poll for the Brennan Center for Justice, approximately 9 out of 10 respondents said that campaign contributions have a “great deal” or “some” influence on how judges rule.
Making matters worse, most of the money “comes from lawyers and special-interest groups who have an interest in the outcome of cases,” according to Marks. Business and special interest groups are generally heavily involved in judicial campaigns. John Dougherty, the brother of candidate Judge Kevin Dougherty, is a member of Philadelphia-based Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. It is expected that they will be involved in his campaign. With large contributions from business interests and lawyers, and few contributions from individual voters, people may rightfully question whether the average Pennsylvanian can get a fair shake in court.
Lawyers also feel the heat in judicial elections. Marks stated, “Lawyers have told me they feel they are in a very difficult position if they don’t contribute.” Judge Wecht, a Supreme Court candidate, noted that the public may be impressed with judges who obtain attorney contributions, stating, “A lawyer has a perspective on the quality of a judge that a non-lawyer might not have.” In reality, it is more likely that the public will feel that a judge would not be able to make an impartial ruling when an attorney in front of him or her has contributed large sums to his or her campaign. Meanwhile, lawyers feel obligated to contribute to a campaign, or a judge may not look upon them favorably in the future. In the end, nobody wins.
By way of comparison, in 2007, the winners for the open Supreme Court seats, Debra McCloskey Todd and Seamus McCaffery, raised $3.8 million between the two of them for their judicial campaigns. The early fundraising numbers this year already indicate that this election’s spending race is likely to be even greater than years past.
There is no perfect solution to this problem. The best answer, however, is to adopt a merit selection system. Merit selection ensures that the best candidate is chosen for the job by using a bi-partisan selection committee to do the majority of the work. The messy politics and campaign fundraising is removed from the system. Judges are not politicians. They should not be required to fundraise as if they were. Pennsylvania deserves better – it is time to put a stop to judicial elections and implement merit selection.