Jul 17 2012

Texas Primary: Pointing Fingers

Published by under News

According to the Texas Tribune, Texas Supreme Court elections are already becoming heated.  Former district court judge, John Devine is running against eight-year incumbent Justice David Medina in a Republican runoff election.

John Devine has taken a grass roots approach to the election.  Justice David Medina has the support of Republican elected officials, and he has traveled

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the state introducing himself to voters.

Both candidates have had their fair share of controversies.  In 2008, Justice Medina was indicted in an arson case causing $1 million in damages to his home.  Charges against Justice Medina were dropped.  “Afterward the Harris County grand jury’s foreman said the dismissal of the charges had been politically motivated.”  In 1997, Devine was sanctioned by the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct for “using court chambers to announce his run for Congress.”  He has also struggled to keep the 10 Commandments in his courtroom and is an anti-abortion activist.  “At a June rally in Fort Worth, Mr. Devine told the crowd he .”  In 1997, Devine was sanctioned by the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct for “using court chambers to announce his run for Congress.”  He has also struggled to keep the 10 Commandments in his courtroom and is an anti-abortion activist.  “At a June rally in Fort Worth, Mr. Devine told the crowd he Viagra Online had Buy Viagra been arrested 37 times while protesting abortion clinics. . . . His activism on behalf of anti-abortion causes raised concerns when it appeared likely that he would hear cases related to abortion laws.”

According to the Statesman, one recent controversy between the two involves Devine’s motivations for running against Justice Medina.  Scott Link, a former district judge, and Frank Harmon, an attorney, claim that Devine targeted Medina because “‘he had a Mexican name’ and was therefore vulnerable in a GOP primary.”  Devine claims these statements are untrue and dishonest.  The Statesman reported that Devine thinks this is an attempt to distract the public from Justice Medina’s 2002 driving while intoxicated charges, “his trial ended in a hung jury — and a $35,000 Texas Ethics Commission fine for improperly spending campaign money on personal travel.”

The Republican primary runoff election is scheduled for July 31, 2012.  As the date nears, how much more time and money will be spent pointing fingers?  Is this how we should be choosing our judges?

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Mar 14 2011

Uncertain Future for Nevada Judicial Ethics Commission

If a recent hearing is any indication, the Nevada Supreme Court is about to allow the state’s judges and judicial candidates to “take the gloves off” when campaigning for a seat on the bench. According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “[j]ustices seemed to favor lifting the restrictions, which prohibit judicial candidates both in what they can say in a campaign and how and when they raise money.” The comments came at a public hearing held Thursday, that could determine the future of the court’s Standing Commission on Judicial Ethics and Election Practices.

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Recent rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court have raised the issue of whether Nevada’s restrictions on judicial campaigning and fundraising infringe on First Amendment free-speech protections. The Nevada Supreme Court is deciding whether or not to overhaul the commission, which uses those rules to resole campaign disputes, and advise sitting judges who inquire about ethical issues.

The voters in Nevada recently rejected a proposal to eliminate judicial elections in favor of a Merit Selection system. Now, they’ll likely be faced with increasingly partisan judicial campaign rhetoric, and judges whose political savvy and fundraising skills are their most important qualifications for the bench. We hope that we can provide the voters of Pennsylvania with the opportunity to make a different choice.

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Feb 25 2011

Judges Work for the People

In an op-ed in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, PMC’s Lynn Marks and Shira Goodman argue that in the wake of the Luzerne County scandal, there remains a fundamental question for Pennsylvania to answer:

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What does it mean to be a judge?The answer should be simple: A judge is a public servant sworn to render judgment in legal cases without regard to self-interest, personal bias, public opinion, or political pressure.

Lately, this fundamental proposition has been overshadowed. But we must demand that it be followed by all Pennsylvania justices and judges, and any judicial behavior falling short of it must not be tolerated.

Marks and Goodman argue that distinctions between what is criminal and what is unethical hold little meaning when it comes to judges, because unethical judicial behavior has the potential to be as harmful as criminal behavior.  They further explain that something has been missing in the aftermath of the scandal, something that may seem obvious, but that needs saying:

There should be an unequivocal official statement that what the former judges did was an example of judicial misconduct of the highest order. It should be made clear to all Pennsylvanians that these men violated almost every rule governing the behavior of the state’s judges.

The authors follow this with a list of ethical constraints on judicial behavior in an effort to restate some basic truths about what Pennsylvanians should be able to expect of their judges.  The op-ed closes with a strong statement about the judicial role:

At its core, kids-for-cash was about judges ignoring who they worked for: the people. These judges abused the power with which the public entrusted them, using it to enrich themselves and their friends.

This is the polar opposite of what it means to be a judge. It must never be allowed to happen again.

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Dec 03 2010

Money: the Cause of a Perception Deficit

Published by under Guest Post,Judges,Opinion

The following is a guest post from Sekou Campbell, an associate at Fox Rothschild LLP in Philadelphia.

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The O’Jays craftily described the power of money in their classic “For the Love of Money,” where they swoon, “money will make you…do things, do things, bad things for it.” In the aftermath of the Luzerne County scandal, Pennsylvanians have a unique understanding of how cash can make society’s most relied upon decision-makers do “bad things.” Of course, the vast majority of judges have integrity and comport themselves with ethical principles. Yet, few can dispute the power money has to taint the perceptions of both the judiciary and the body politic.

Recently, a cacophony of reports and editorials from the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Harrisburg Patriot-News, and the New York Times have profoundly questioned Pennsylvania Supreme Court policy regarding gifts: if judges may accept gifts from lawyers who appear before them so long as they disclose them. Hopefully, the Court notices and acts upon the near uniform condemnation of this policy.

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Presents cast a specter of bias on even the most virtuous and fair judge. The judiciary should, at least, consider ways to mitigate this perception deficit. For instance, just as corporate boards form special litigation committees of disinterested directors when making decisions regarding derivative suits, so could the judiciary form a similar committee for recusals. Otherwise, the judiciary could adopt the ABA Model Code of Judicial Conduct 2.11 which requires the disqualification of judges who have received contributions from lawyers appearing before them. Of course, the judiciary would have to engage in discourse with itself and the public regarding its recusal rules. However, requiring mere disclosure, without more, undermines the legitimacy of the venerable Pennsylvania bench.

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Jul 30 2008

Donation Dilemma Dogs Judicial Candidates

Published by under News,Opinion,Our Perspective

An article about campaign financing in a state legislative race raises ethical issues that echo concerns about judicial campaigns. Candidate Todd Stephens is a Montgomery County assistant district attorney. His opponent’s campaign charges that Stephens is accepting campaign donations from defense attorneys and law firms whose clients he’s scheduled to prosecute.

Shira Goodman, associate director for Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, was interviewed for the story, and she explained that “Stephens faces the same challenge as those running for judge.”

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Who else is going to give money to judicial campaigns? Not the general public. [Candidates] are going to raise money from people they know in the community and from those they know through work … those who believe they would do a good job.

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Stephens hasn’t broken any laws, nor has he violated any policy of the district attorney’s office. The article doesn’t offer any evidence that he’s done his job differently since he started accepting campaign donations. Yet he’s facing questions about his integrity, based on contributions from donors who may simply be supporting their colleague’s political aspirations.

Judges face an even thornier dilemma when they’re forced to raise gobs of campaign money in order to win elections. Unlike legislators, judges are supposed to be impartial, applying the law fairly, even if it conflicts with their political philosophies. Campaign donations from attorneys, or entities that spend a lot of time litigating, create the perception that money might have some effect on a judge’s impartiality.

As spending on judicial campaigns continues to increase, the ethics of judges are questioned. Decisions involving donors are scrutinized and second-guessed. Public confidence in the fairness of the judiciary erodes.

Merit Selection solves the donation dilemma for judicial candidates. There can’t be a perception of influence from campaign donors if becoming a judge doesn’t require waging an expensive political campaign. It’s time that we brought Merit Selection of appellate judges to Pennsylvania, so that the public can have confidence in the impartiality of our appellate courts, and appellate judges can take the bench without fear of the donation dilemma.

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May 29 2008

West Virginia: The Scandal Continues

Published by under Judges,News

The problems caused in West Virginia by one company’s contributions to judicial election campaigns continue to plague the state. Now, even though one of the Justices involved lost his reelection bid, there is an effort to have a case involving that contributor reexamined, with a focus on whether another Justice should have recused from the case. Theodore B. Olson, former solicitor general of the United States and private counsel to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, will spearhead efforts to get the issue before the United States Supreme Court.

In a press release announcing his involvement with the case,

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Mr. Olson succinctly sums up the crisis of public confidence created by partisan judicial elections:

The improper appearance created by money in judicial elections is one of the most important issues facing our judicial system today. A line needs to be drawn somewhere to prevent a judge from hearing cases involving a person who has made massive campaign contributions to benefit the judge.

We think the best solution to the problem is to get appellate judges out of the fundraising business altogether. The way to do this is Merit Selection.

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May 16 2008

"The Poisonous Effect of Money on Justice"

In a May 6th editorial, the Austin American-Statesman discussed a Texas Supreme Court ruling in favor of builder Bob Perry, who had donated thousands of dollars to the campaigns of every justice on the court. The paper concluded that “it is impossible not to be cynical about the poisonous effect of money on justice.”

When thousands of dollars are flowing to judicial candidates, their fairness and impartiality are in doubt. And a ruling like the one favoring a huge donor like Perry undermines the ideal of judicial integrity, even if the decision is on sound legal

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The American-Statesman recognizes that court rulings in favor of big campaign donors, no matter how correct or just, are tainted with questions and uncertainty about whether the money influenced the decision. This undermines public confidence in the courts.

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Merit Selection solves this dilemma. It gets judges out of the fundraising business. It will help ensure that Pennsylvania’s appellate judges can’t be accused of favoring campaign donors in their decisions. Such accusations have recently been made in West Virginia, and now in Texas. Switching to Merit Selection of Pennsylvania’s appellate judges will make sure that can’t happen here.

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Apr 15 2008

“We Put Cash in the Courtrooms”

We put cash in the courtrooms and it’s just wrong.” This is how former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor opened last week’s conference at Fordham Law School studying the judiciary and the courts.

Justice O’Connor has neatly summed up the problem with using partisan elections to select appellate judges. This system requires would-be judges to raise money from lawyers, law firms and other organizations that are likely to appear before them in the future. Who else would be interested enough to fund these increasingly expensive campaigns?

Of course, almost every judge and every contributor says that campaign contributions have no influence in the courtroom. But studies show that the public (and even some judges) believes the opposite to be true. This perception leads to a lack of public confidence in the judiciary and the courts. If the public doesn’t believe that our courts are fair and impartial, the courts can’t effectively serve the public.

Let’s get the cash out of the courtrooms. It’s time for Merit Selection.

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Apr 05 2008

Setting the Record Straight — What the Wall Street Journal Got Wrong

There’s been a lot of chatter about a recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal criticizing those calling for Merit Selection of state judges. The editorial opened with a discussion of John Grisham’s new novel The Appeal, a story about a big corporation trying to influence the outcome of a case by contributing to a judicial election campaign. In response to Grisham’s comments that the novel was being played out in real life examples throughout the country, the editorial moved on to attack Merit Selection.

The editorial asserted: “In a result that might surprise Mr. Grisham, a 2007 Harvard study actually found that judges who are elected directly by voters are overall less corrupt than those who win their robes through other methods of selection.” This is a blatant mischaracterization of both the focus and the conclusions of the 2007 Harvard study.

The study, conducted by James Alt and David Lassen, focused on government corruption. It addressed whether the way judges are picked affects the ability of the judiciary to thwart corruption by the other branches of government. The study did not address judicial corruption, and it certainly didn’t reach conclusions about whether the way judges are selected affects levels of corruption in the judiciary.

The author of the editorial twisted the results of the study to serve her purpose of attacking those who support Merit Selection. In doing so, she misled the readers of the Wall Street Journal.

The facts about the Harvard study were presented to the Wall Street Journal in a letter to the editor authored by Lynn Marks of PMC and PMCAction and Seth Andersen of the American Judicature Society. However, this letter has not (at least as yet) been printed by the Journal.

Reasonable people can and do disagree about how judges should be selected. But reasonable people should make their decisions based on the facts. We trust the people of Pennsylvania to do just that and to vote on whether to change the way we select our appellate judges. What are the critics of Merit Selection so afraid of?

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Mar 12 2008

More Outrage Over Political Tactics In Wisconsin Elections

Published by under News

Political watchdog site FactCheck.org kicks off its new Court Watch series by taking a look at the race for a Supreme Court seat in Wisconsin. The report examines some of the inflammatory and misleading claims in campaign materials and third-party advertising. It’s an eye-opening look at what happens when judgeships are treated like any other political office.

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