Dec 20 2011

Judicial Campaign Soliciation Raises Concern

Published by under Merit Selection

Paul Carpenter’s commentary in the Allentown Morning Call highlights a major problem inherent in electing judges — the money problem.  Carpenter focuses on reactions to a recent post-campaign solicitation on behalf of Judge-elect Doug Reichley.  In Pennsylvania, judicial campaigns can continue to raise funds following the election, but only for a limited time.  This prompted a solicitation letter, from two lawyers on behalf of the Reichley campaign, to all 700 lawyers in Lehigh County requesting donations of $100 to help retire the campaign’s debt.

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Carpenter noted that Reichley claimed he would not be influenced by campaign contributions, but, Carpenter observed:

Those who cannot see into Reichley’s heart, however, might fret over which lawyers acceded to the demands and which ones didn’t. Also, suppose you have a lawyer who paid the $100 but the other side has one who paid significantly more.

In your mind, maybe there are echoes of the judicial scandals in Luzerne County, or a few in Lehigh County, or even at the Pennsylvania Supreme Court level. Maybe you feel you’d better shop for a lawyer who knows how to play ball.

Barry Kauffman, Executive Director of Common Cause, noted that “We shouldn’t have people going into Cialis generic sale court wondering if the other side has made contributions to that judge.”  He further explained that the only way to avoid that is Merit Selection.

We agree that Merit Selection is the way to solve the money problem — simply put, it gets judges out of the fundraising business. No longer would anyone have to worry whether the litigant or lawyer on the opposing side of the case had contributed to the judge’s campaign and what effect that might have.  That would be a very positive change for Pennsylvania.



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May 03 2010

The Problem is Obvious

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Paul Carpenter of the Allentown Morning Call devoted his weekend column to a call for Merit Selection.  He reasons that the role of money in the judicial election process poisons the judicial system:

The problem should be obvious to anyone. A child in grade school can see why there’s a conflict if a judge in a position to rule on a legal dispute takes money from somebody with a vital financial interest in that case.

Carpenter spoke with PMC’s Lynn Marks:

”Pennsylvanians should not take pride in leading the nation in spending for judicial elections,” Marks told me. ”Each dollar raised and spent raises yet another doubt in voters’ minds about whether or not justice is for sale.”

Carpenter agreed, arguing “How is it possible for a judicial candidate

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Pennsylvanians should make their voices heard. As Carpenter notes, that’s the only way we will achieve much needed reform.
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Oct 27 2009

Let’s Talk About Money

All of a sudden, other people seem to be doing our work for us, that is alerting the public to the evils of money in judicial elections.  Supreme Court candidates are challenging each other about campaign contributions, and the media is all over the story.  (Check out this story on NPR’s WHYY and articles in the Pittsburgh Post-GazettePittsburgh Tribune-Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer/APCapitolwire (subscription required), and Allentown’s The Morning Call). So, let’s talk about money.

It’s a given that to run a statewide campaign for the appellate courts, you need money.  There are sixty-seven counties in Pennsylvania, and candidates try to reach most, if not all of them.  This requires travel, television ads, radio spots, lawn signs and a good staff.  That all costs money.  Where’s the money coming from? Generally, the big givers to judicial campaigns are those who frequently litigate in the state court system: lawyers, law firms, organized groups of lawyers or bar associations, unions, and businesses.

The trouble is, these folks and entities will later appear before the judges their money helped to elect.  Who finds this troubling?  The public does — the regular folks who sometimes find themselves in court and who don’t give to judicial campaigns.  These folks are sitting in courtrooms worried that their opponents or their opponents’ lawyers have contributed to the judge’s election campaign.  This should be the last thing people in court have to worry about.  But when you elect judges, this is part of the package.

The abiding image for our courts is the statue of Justice blindfolded, signifying that judges are not swayed by personal bias, popular opinion, political expediency, or the identity of the parties.  Electing judges undermines that image.  Instead, the public imagines a judge with eyes wide open, pockets bulging with campaign cash, and knowledge of where the cash came from.

The candidates for Supreme Court are not helping to repair this image. They are fighting about who received more money from which donors. Judge Orie Melvin charges that Judge Panella received more than  $1,000,000 from the Committee for a Better Tomorrow, the political action committee of the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers.  Judge Panella retorts that Judge Orie Melvin accepted $125,000 from the same PAC and has received large donations from Republican PACs as well.

One million dollars is a lot of money, but $125,000 is nothing to sneeze at, as my nine year old son has pointed out.  Anyone coming in to court opposing someone who contributed to this PAC might justifiably be concerned about either Judge Panella or Judge Orie Melvin.  It’s not the size of the donation, it’s the fact of the donation.

The candidates’ dispute acknowledges that campaign money creates unfavorable perceptions and leads the public to believe justice is for sale.  Their debate about money is not helping to ease the public’s mind, but rather is confirming fears that campaign cash does indeed matter long after the election is over and the judge is sitting in the courtroom.

Enough is enough. It’s time to get judges out of the fundraising business and to put the blindfold back on.  Merit Selection is the answer.

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Aug 13 2009

Some Strong Words for the Pennsylvania Judicial System

Paul Capenter of the Allentown Morning Call devoted yesterday’s column to a recap of the judicial scandals in Luzerne County.  Carpenter has strong words for the Pennsylvania judicial system and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in particular:

The appellate system is a comedy routine over which presides the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which, among its other scandals, did everything but back-flips to accommodate the crimes of two Luzerne County judges, who took $2.6 million in payoffs to throw hundreds of juveniles into a commercial juvie jail on flimsy grounds.

Carpenter updates his readers on the continuing investigation in Luzerne County and how various other cases are getting reexamined.  He concludes with a thought about one factor contributing to problems in the judicial system — judicial elections:

Someday, all these exciting episodes will end, probably when Pennsylvania enacts merit selection for appellate court judges — instead of letting party bosses pick judicial candidates. Then we’ll have to go back to watching Jerry Springer.

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May 26 2009

Look Who’s Talking About Reform

John Micek of the Allentown Morning Call and author of the Capitol Ideas blog offers a post-election look at the debate over whether we should continue to elect judges in Pennsylvania. He notes that there is a growing sense that the current election system is not working.

Micek notes that the lack of information available to voters in judicial elections — due to constraints on judicial candidate speech as well as limited coverage of judicial races in the media — creates a situation where results are driven by factors unrelated to qualifications to serve on the bench and voter turn-out is low:

Critics say that combination of factors has made the races the exclusive province of three constituencies: political party insiders, lawyers, and the big business interests who often find themselves in the courtroom.

So instead of the voters picking judicial candidates based on their temperament, experience and qualifications, external factors such as geography, gender and party endorsements can often carry the day.

Tim Potts, leader of Democracy Rising Pa, argues that we need judicial selection reform:

“There’s no question we need to change. The only question is whether it’s going to be to something that’s equally as awful or to the highest quality we can get. . . . We need to have a real discussion and that hasn’t happened for years.”

Merit Selection offers a good solution to the problems Micek identifies.  It focuses on qualifications, reduces or eliminates the role of factors like ballot position, name recognition, political party support and campaigning skill, and gets judges out of the fundraising business.

It’s time for Pennsylvania to tackle the serious issue of how we select appellate court judges.  This requires a great deal of attention and commitment on the part of our leaders and citizens. We hope Pennsylvanians are ready to begin the work needed to address this issue.

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May 21 2009

Another Call for Merit Selection

Bill White of the Allentown Morning Call, writing a post-election wrap-up, reiterates his belief that Pennsylvania should use Merit Selection to choose appellate court judges.  He reasons that most voters have little or no information to guide them in making decisions about who should sit on the appellate courts and that political party endorsements play too great a role in influencing who reaches the bench.  He concludes:

So I advocate merit selection for our state judges. It wouldn’t remove all the politics, but at least it would ensure we get competent people in there.

This echoes something we’ve long understood: it’s not possible to take all the politics out of a judicial selection system.  But it is possible to reduce the role of party politics and other factors irrelevant to being qualified to serve as a judge — like fundraising ability, ballot position, and county of residence. It is also possible to emphasize qualifications, skill and experience in the selection process.  Merit Selection is the way to accomplish this.

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Apr 27 2009

Judges and Campaign Contributors

Published by under Judges,News

The Allentown Morning Call, analyzing how often local judges end up presiding in cases involving campaign contributors, found that “[o]ut of seven judges examined, only one was found to have no cases involving significant donors.”  This review looked at the parties involved in civil cases, but did not include donations from lawyers or law firms.  The results compelled the following conclusion:

The instances underscore how judicial rules basically leave it up judges to decide whether they should recuse themselves from a case. They also demonstrate how Pennsylvania‘s system of electing judges leaves the bench vulnerable to claims of one-sidedness or worse, even though the donations are legal.

The article notes that there is growing public concern across the country that campaign contributions may affect a judge’s ability to rule impartially.  PMC Executive Director Lynn A. Marks summed up the perception problem: ”Think about yourself being in court and sitting and wondering whether your opponent or your opponent’s attorney made a large contribution to a judge.”

Clearly, this is something no one should ever have to worry about.  But an electoral system that requires judges and their campaigns to fundraise promotes such concerns.  It’s time to get judges out of the fundraising business.

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Apr 09 2009

Pennsylvania Needs A Better Way

In a blog post about the Pennsylvania courts, Allentown Morning Call columnist Bill White notes that our system for selecting appellate court judges doesn’t make any sense.  He had harsh words for the electoral process:

[J]udges are selected by voters who have no clue about their credentials and . . . the best way to ensure election is to accept help from political power brokers. Until we switch to merit selection — still political, but much more likely to produce high-quality judges — or at least regional representation so voters have at least a slight chance of knowing something about the candidates, we’ll be left with eenie-meenie-miney-moe and a lousy state judiciary.

The electoral system is not the best way to select judges — good judges make it to the bench despite the system, not because of it.  Under Merit Selection, qualifications, skill, experience and one’s reputation for honesty and fairness would be the factors emphasized in picking judges.

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Mar 09 2009

Morning Call Urges Merit Selection

An editorial in the Allentown Morning Call, inspired by the judicial scandal in Luzerne County, urges Pennsylvania to adopt a Merit Selection system.  The Luzerne scandal, which continues to broaden in scope, involves two state court judges pleading guilty to federal charges related to their allegedly receiving kickbacks for referring juvenile defendants to a particular detention facility.  The case has rocked Luzerne County and the entire state, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has taken action to have court operations reviewed and the juvenile cases reexamined.

The editorial lays blame not only at the feet of the judges involved in the scandal, but also argues the state Supreme Court should have intervened earlier.  Observing that redress is difficult, the editorial urges:

[T]here is a long-range reform that holds promise for improving the appellate courts, one that these pages have supported for years: Merit selection, instead of the political election of judges.

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