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Oct 07 2011

Break the Link Between Judges and Campaign Cash

A Philadelphia Inquirer editorial criticizing the recent “request” by the Philadelphia Democratic Party for $10,000 contributions from judges standing for retention this year, strongly condemns the electoral system.  “By approaching sitting judges for campaign contributions, party officials are engaging in what the state’s longtime court-reform group, Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, calls “a prime example of how money and politics pollute the process of electing judges.”  The editorial specifically attacks the way the electoral system essentially requires fundraising from those most likely to appear in court, noting that it creates “at the least, an impression among the public that justice is for sale.”

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The editorial closes with the hope that instances like this will further spur the move for reform: “the whole breakfast episode should at least help motivate some state lawmakers – their efforts supported by Gov. Corbett – who are pushing for the merit-based appointment of appellate-court judges as a first step in breaking the link between judges and campaign cash.”  We hope this prediction proves accurate and that Pennsylvanians will soon have the opportunity to decide whether they want to change the way we select appellate court judges.

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Jul 14 2011

Count Phil Hands among those calling for change

Published by under Merit Selection

The recent fracas on the Wisconsin Supreme Court has given cartoonist Phil Hands plenty of material for his political cartoons. However, even he isn’t happy with his muse. In yesterday’s edition of the Wisconsin State-Journal, in “Clowns on the Court” (with cartoon, found here) he criticizes the partisan divide on the court, writing “The court is politically polarized, resorts to name calling in its official opinions and has even seen physical violence break out in its chambers.” He blames the court’s current state on Wisconsin’s judicial elections, “soaked with special interest money that taints the justices in the eye of the public.” Moreover, he highlights another flaw in Wisconsin’s system: the governor has complete discretion to appoint who he wishes to the court in the event of an interim appointment, leaving the system vulnerable to abuse. His solution? Merit Selection. Merit selection, he suggests, would keep special-interest money out of the courtroom and restore public confidence, while providing a check on the unilateral power of the governor to appoint whoever he wishes.

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Jul 08 2011

Public Distrust in Judiciary a Cause for Concern

The recent events in Wisconsin have everyone talking, and no one should like what the public has to say: it has lost respect for and trust in the judiciary. Public faith in the courts is the very basis of our justice system. When allegations of physical altercations arise and enormous amounts of judicial campaign spending create cause for concern, courts need to defend their independence, impartiality, and integrity.

Wisconsin state senators, Tim Cullen (D) and Dale Schultz (R), have offered merit selection as the means by which the judiciary can regain public confidence. The senators said in an interview with Steve Walters that they understand how the public might not trust its courts. Sen. Cullen said, “I no longer trust the court on the merits of the law. I know that sounds pretty inflammatory, but if I was appearing in a case before the Supreme Court and my opponent had spent a tremendous amount of money on one of the justices, I wouldn’t feel comfortable with that court.” Sen. Schultz similarly blames in the influx of campaign contributions for public distrust in the courts: “With all the money in the races it encourages justices to be activists on both sides. This puts into play whether the decision is based on who gave what or spent money on their behalf. Can we survive in this country when people know that incentive is there? ”

Others fault hostility among the justices for the distrust of the courts. “Given the nature of the issues faced by the Supreme Court, intellectual conflict is understandable; hand-to-hand combat is not acceptable and demeans the court.” The editorial suggests that a unanimous apology from the court would be an important first step, but also says, “We fear that the court has reached a level of dysfunction beyond repair.”

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The concern is well placed. When people go to court and wonder if campaign contributions influence their judge’s decisions, how can they trust the judiciary? When political hostilities come to blows, how can the public believe in the integrity of the judiciary? A restoration of public confidence in the courts is sorely needed. Merit selection can refocus the conversation around the ability of judges to impartially apply the law and renew public faith that a decision will be a fair one.

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Apr 25 2011

A Call For Recusal Reform in Illinois

In a 4/25 editorial, the Chicago Sun-Times calls for new standards to require a judge to step down from cases involving campaign contributors. The paper laments the increasing price tag of judicial elections, and the perception that campaign contributions to judges have an influence on their rulings.

How do judges raise money to run for office without creating at least the appearance — if not the reality — that somebody’s buying a favorable judicial ruling down the line?

It’s a problem that’s getting worse, as big money has started pouring into Illinois judicial races. Last fall, more than $3 million was funneled into the retention campaign of Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas L. Kilbride — the most in state history for a retention race.

As judicial campaign spending continues to increase, mandatory recusal rules are an increasingly important tool. They help mitigate the appearance that impartial jurists might be influenced by campaign donations. They also prevent judges who might be tempted to show favoritism from ruling on cases involving donors. But we think a better solution would be to relieve appellate judges of the need to raise campaign funds in the first place.

Under Merit Selection, there is less potential for influence, real or perceived, because judges can reach the bench without needing campaign donations. Appellate judges are evaluated based on their knowledge, experience and skill, instead of their ability to amass campaign funding. And when they go before the voters in retention elections, they’re not running against a political opponent. They’re running on their service on the bench, a record that the public can look to when deciding if they deserve to be retained.

Potential conflicts of interest aren’t completely eliminated, of course, but one important source is taken out of the equation. Judges can rule without the specter of campaign donor influence hanging over their decisions, and the public can be more confident in the fairness and impartiality of the courts. That’s one important reason why we support the switch to Merit Selection for Pennsylvania’s appellate judges.

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Jul 09 2008

“Follow The Money” In Mississippi Judicial Elections

Published by under Judges,Opinion

Another Mississippi newspaper is warning about the effects of massive campaign donations on the justice dispensed in the state’s appellate courts. An editorial in the Greenwood Commonwealth considers recent trends in verdicts issued by the Mississippi Supreme Court, and suggests that campaign contributions might be influencing the Court’s decisions. “For the coming elections,” the paper warns, “voters should educate themselves on who is contributing to whom because that’s a good sign as to how they’ll rule if elected.”

The piece offers a solution that would remove any suggestion that campaign contributions influence verdicts: do away with elections for appellate judges.

What is needed on the court, of course, are fair-minded jurists who are not beholden to big contributors… This could be better accomplished through a system of appointing, rather than electing, appellate court judges.

Merit Selection does exactly that. Merit Selected judges don’t have to raise campaign funds, so any apperance of bias toward campaign donors is eliminated. It’s time to bring Merit Selection to Pennsylvania, so that our appellate judges can rule based on the law, free from any suggestion that they’re just following the money.

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Jun 30 2008

Impartiality Of Judges A Concern In Minnesota

As the Pioneer Press explains in an editorial about interim judicial appointees, Minnesota judges “usually take office via a gubernatorial appointment, but then must win re-election to stay in office. This makes it a unique office, out of the flow of daily partisan politics but subject to being sucked in at any moment.” The editorial praises the interim appointment system as a better way to select impartial judges:

Judges should be appointed based on merit and not on political calculus. Fairness, experience and integrity are paramount virtues. We love political battling in legislative races but do not want judicial candidates to be cozying up to interest groups, declaring their views on issues pending before them or attacking foes on television. We want Minnesotans to believe that the judge before whom they are appearing is there for the right reasons and will apply the law impartially.

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This is a good summary of the goals of Merit Selection advocates. We want an appellate bench staffed by judges who know and respect the law, and who will apply it without regard to popular opinion, political whims, or the pressures of campaign donors.

Merit Selection is the system designed to accomplish this. While no system can entirely remove politics from judicial selection, Merit Selection frees the process from ever-increasing campaign spending and the exaggerated value of political savvy over ability and experience.

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Jun 20 2008

Good Answers to Questions about Merit Selection

The Wisconsin State Journal has an excellent editorial answering readers’ comments about its recent endorsement of Merit Selection. The editorial addresses many of the recurring arguments and myths we hear from opponents of judicial selection reform. For example:


Q. Why do you want to take away our right to elect our justices?

A: A better question is: Why should we use elections, designed to cater to partisan views and to reflect the will of the majority, to select justices who are supposed to be impartial and to protect the rights of the minority?

Think of it this way: Do you believe football fans should vote on who referees Green Bay Packers games? What happens when the Packers play the Bears? Will Chicago fans outvote the Wisconsin faithful?

Or should the National Football League select officials based on league evaluations of their expertise, impartiality and previous performance?

The piece addresses other common Merit misconceptions, including the roll of politics in Merit Selection, and the non-existent conspiracy to end elections for all government officials. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in learning more about Merit Selection.

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Jun 13 2008

Voices Of Merit: Merit Selection Reduces the Appearance of Impropriety In Iowa

Published by under Opinion,Our Perspective

Iowa has used a merit selection process since 1962. Although their process is not perfect, observing judicial elections in sister states has confirmed for Iowans that they made the right choice. A June 11, 2008, editorial in The Des Moines Register addresses the problem of money in judicial elections:

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Candidates must raise big money from potential litigants and law firms, and they wage campaigns that may suggest promising to take certain legal positions in exchange for votes.

This summary hits the nail on the head. No party or attorney wants to try her case against opposing counsel who has made monetary contributions to the presiding judge. No ethical judge will base her decision on which attorney’s pockets were deeper, of course. But the appearance of impropriety threatens to sully any elected judge’s reputation and threatens the judiciary’s unbiased, neutral reputation overall.

As the editorial notes, “Politics cannot be completely removed from judicial selection, but politics should not dominate, lest candidates be expected to make promises about how they will rule.”

We agree with this wise assessment. And though we can’t get politics completely out of the process of selecting appellate court judges, we can get the money out. We should follow Iowa’s good example and choose Merit Selection.

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May 28 2008

Merit Selection Preserves Democratic Values

Merit Selection of appellate judges isn’t a partisan issue. Groups that care about good government and unbiased justice, from business groups like the Pennsylvania Business Council and the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association to civic groups like Common Cause and the American Civil Liberties Union, support Merit Selection as the best way to ensure a fair and impartial judiciary for all citizens.

Despite this consensus from a wide spectrum of viewpoints, critics continue to insist that the campaign to bring Merit Selection of appellate judges to Pennsylvania is politically motivated. Working through the democratic process to give Pennsylvania voters the chance to choose a method of judicial selection gets unfairly portrayed as an attempt to undermine democracy.

To get at the truth, let’s take a broader view of judicial selection. In the midst of this year’s bitterly contentious race for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the Wisconsin State Journal wrote an editorial urging the state to viagra online without prescription

=”_blank”>replace partisan election of its high court justices with a Merit Selection system. This insightful examination of increasingly partisan, expensive judicial elections prompting calls for reform illuminates how Merit Selection safeguards the rights of citizens.

Judges — especially supreme court judges — are supposed to check the majority ‘s power to trample on the minority ‘s rights. Judges do that by remaining impartial and true to the law, rather than bending to the prevailing political winds. When judges are elected in big-money contests in which partisan sides back judges partial to their politics, the system of checks and balances is upset. That’s undemocratic.

Bringing Merit Selection to Pennsylvania’s appellate courts requires that the citizens of Pennsylvania vote for it. If that happens, we will gain a judicial selection system immune to the influence of campaign fundraising. The power of deep-pocket donors will be replaced with a system that provides justice free from the taint of campaign donations. We’ll have a fair, impartial judiciary, able to decide every case without concern for raising campaign funds.

What could be more democratic than that?

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May 01 2008

Times-Tribune: Time To “Get The Ball Rolling On Merit Selection.”

Published by under Merit Selection,Opinion

In an editorial addressing Governor Rendell’s stalled interim judicial appointments, Scranton’s Times-Tribune points out that judicial elections make it difficult for qualified candidates from many areas of Pennsylvania to reach the appellate bench.

Due to simple electoral math, it is very difficult for any candidate who is not from the Philadelphia area or Allegheny County to be elected to the appellate courts. Diversification of the appellate courts is one of the reasons that the state should switch to a system of merit selection.

Diversity on the bench, including geographic, racial, ethnic, gender and professional diversity, is one of many important characteristics of a fair and impartial justice system. It’s something that’s elections have not produced on Pennsylvania’s appellate courts.

We agree with the Times-Tribune that it’s time for Pennsylvania’s legislators to “get the ball rolling on merit selection.”

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