Oct 23 2012

Select on Merit, Don’t Elect on Money

Published by under Merit Selection

A recent editorial in the Daily Journal (Tupelo) explains that an independent judiciary should not have to campaign for contributions. Although the candidates for the Mississippi State Court election are all “honorable members of the

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campaign is unsettling. The amount of money that candidates raise is substantial; one candidate in the Central District has raised $375,000. His opponent has raised $290,000.

Some of this money comes from friends and colleagues expecting nothing more than an impartial judge; however, interest groups also contribute to judicial election campaigns. The problem with these contributions is that judges are supposed to be impartial, judging by the law, not by whether a specific interest group will donate to their campaign next time. Also, “[n]o interest group contributes to any candidate without some expectation that

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the candidate will represent its interests.”

Although upstanding judges will not decide cases based on interest group contributions, why have a system where interest groups might have a say? Even the appearance of special interest groups contributing to judicial elections should be avoided because it causes a lack of public confidence.

Under a merit selection system judges are not forced to campaign. Further, judges would not be pressured by special interest groups who contribute to campaigns with hopes of the law being decided in their favor. An impartial judge should be selected on merit, not on how much money one can raise.

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Aug 08 2011

Tennessee lawyers, business organizations agree: Keep Merit Selection!

Published by under Merit Selection

When it comes to judicial elections, trial lawyers and big business are almost always on opposite sides. In Tennessee, though, the two groups are uniting to oppose a shift away from merit selection for the state’s high court. Tennessee’s constitution mandates that state judges “shall be elected by the qualified voters of this state.” While the state Supreme Court has ruled that retention elections satisfy this requirement, opponents say that the current system is unconstitutional. Therefore, they are attempting to prevent the reauthorization of TN’s judicial nominating commission and to replace the current systems with contested elections for supreme court justices. Business groups such as the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the TN Business Roundtable and Tennesseans for Economic Growth have all rallied to defend the current system, citing the importance of predictability and stability in the judiciary for businesses in the state.


Tennessee lawyer’s groups, such as the Tennessee Bar Association and the TN Association for Justice, have also indicated their support of the current system, saying “We believe the (present) process is the best possible way of selecting justices.” Both sides hope to avoid the heavy costs associated with judicial selection: over 268 million was spent on State Supreme Court judicial campaigns over the past decade, according to a recent study by the Brennan Center for Justice.. Senate SpeakerRon Ramsey, who is pushing a compromise measure that would amend the state constitution to specifically provide for merit selection, wishes to preserve merit selection, rather than “letting money buy the elections.” Tennessee’s merit selection system has worked well
in the past and we at judgesonmerit.org hope that Tennessee will continue to use merit selection for their Supreme Court.
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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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Jun 22 2011

Recent blog article questions significance of study on Florida Supreme Court

Published by under Merit Selection

Judicial retention elections are a vital part of both Pennsylvania’s current system and merit selection, the system favored by Judges on Merit. Through them, the people make their voice heard. However, it’s important to remember that though we have the power to remove judges, we ought to wield it wisely, evaluating our judges based on their legal philosophy as a whole, rather than on a handful of politically contentious decisions. Gavel Grab’s recent piece focuses on efforts to remove several Justices from Florida’s Supreme Court and draws our attention to a study trumpeted by Tea Party groups, who advocate for the Justices’ dismissal. Though published in 2005, the study has recently gained traction as these groups look to justify their efforts to remove several members of the Court. This study, indirectly funded by the National Association of Manufacturers through the American Justice Partnership, focuses on a handful of decisions (eleven over the past thirty years) to unfairly label Florida’s Supreme Court as ‘Activist.’

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It is important to remember that we ask judges to make decisions not on what is politically popular but according to the law. Much of the anger aimed at Florida’s Court comes from a recent ruling that barred a state referendum on federal health care legislation. However, it is a mistake to remove judges due to occasional unpopular decisions. The best judicial philosophies demand that judges make unpopular decisions if what is popular is contrary to the law or the facts. It is vital we evaluate judges based on their record as a whole, rather than focusing on a handful of decisions. Moreover, the involvement of NAM is troubling. Whenever any one group begins to play an outsized role in judicial elections, it creates the danger of bias when that party, or those it represents, comes before the bench. Judges must be held accountable, it is true, but they must also be allowed to impartially apply justice, even if we disagree with the result. Our vote “should be cast based on honest research, not on partisan gamesmanship,” as Gavel Grab writer Charlie Hall points out, and we urge Floridians to cast their judicial votes accordingly.


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Dec 23 2010

An Attempt to Restore Trust in the Courts

Published by under Judges

An article in the Traverse City Record-Eagle provides some more details about the newly formed Michigan Judicial Selection Task Force which will examine the need for judicial reform. The task force will be comprised of twenty-four distinguished Michigan citizens, including but not limited to lawyers. The task force is being organized in part by the chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, who is disturbed by the politicization and expense of judicial campaigns. She expressed her discontent in a statement regarding recent campaigns:

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Over the last decade, millions of dollars have been spent Michigan judicial candidates as being unfit for office. If you watch these ads, you get the impression we are choosing among scoundrels and incompetents.

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This portrayal of the judges damages the court system as a whole, as does the role money plays in the system. Rich Robinson, who runs the Michigan Campaign Finance Network worries that people are losing confidence in the impartiality of the courts: “No trust in courts, no rule of law.” The task force hopes to make its report by the end of the year.

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Dec 21 2010

San Antonio Editorial Board is Looking for a Change

The editorial board at the San Antonio Express-News is calling for a change in Texas’s judicial selection. Texas currently uses partisan elections to select judges, but the editorial board believes that politics and money play too large a role in the process. In addition to worrying about politicizing the judiciary, the editorial condemns the fact that: “judges also are forced to solicit campaign contributions, and the only people who care enough to contribute to a judicial race most likely have or will have business before the court.” It notes former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s position against judicial elections as well as the fact that many judges acknowledge the public’s “discomfort” with the money involved in the system.

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The editorial goes on to encourage the Texas legislature to adopt merit selection. We agree that the combined appointive and elective elements of merit selection provide the best means of ensuring fair and impartial courts. The public deserves a judiciary it can be confident in, not one tied up in politics and money. Judges have a unique position, and should be insulated from the campaigning and fundraising that accompany elections.

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Dec 14 2010

Looking for a Change

An editorial in the Daily Advance explains that the North Carolina Bar Association believes that the state needs a better method of selecting judges, and the editorial board agrees. The Bar Association’s president-elect explains that there are two reasons for what is perceived to be a decline in the judiciary. First, some of the best potential candidates do not want to get involved with the business of political campaigns. The editorial describes how certain potential candidates may be deterred because they: “have no interest in or time for the rough-and-tumble campaign battlefield that exemplifies our elections.” It also mentions that candidates may be turned off by the prospect of fundraising. Second, voters are uninformed about the judicial candidates on the ballot. Voters generally do not have information about “the record, qualifications and abilities” of appellate court candidates, and often voters simply skip those races when voting.

The concerns of the Bar Association, and potential candidates, about judicial elections come even though elections in North Carolina are non-partisan and utilize public financing. Although the editorial has concerns about the success of getting such a measure passed, the Bar Association recommends moving to a merit selection system. A shift to merit selection would: “ensur[e] that the state’s judicial posts would be filled with qualified men and women.” The editorial goes on to suggest that a voter education program could be the solution.

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Merit selection is the best means of ensuring fair and impartial courts because it takes the money and much of the politicking out of judicial selection. We believe that merit selection works best when it is accompanied by voter education to ensure that retention elections serve their purpose. By removing campaigning and fundraising from the selection process, merit selection provides the best way to create a fair and impartial judiciary.

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Dec 03 2010

The Role of Retention Elections and the Public

Published by under Judges,Merit Selection

An article in the Des Moines Register announces that Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins still believes that Merit Selection is best way to pick judges. Refusing to “second guess” the recent election in which three Iowa Supreme Court justices were ousted, Wiggins declared that it was time for the court to move on.

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Speaking as a panelist at an event sponsored by the Iowa chapter of the American Constitution Society, Wiggins expressed confidence in the selection committee’s role in creating fair and impartial courts. He stated that he believes they provide the governor with a list of the most qualified candidates. Ben Stone, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa and another panelist, emphasized the importance of an independent judiciary:

There can be no civil liberties – there can be no individual freedom – in a country that does not have an independent judiciary. And in a state that doesn’t have an independent judiciary, all of the rights that are at stake in the state courts are up for grabs.

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We agree that fair and impartial courts are necessary, and that Merit Selection is the best way to achieve such courts. Retention elections are an important component to the Merit Selection system, but there is a problem when retention elections are used to target judges on single issues. As PMC recently stated in an editorial in the Legal Intelligencer, retention elections should be an opportunity for the public to evaluate the whole of a judge’s tenure. Formal evaluations of judicial performance and ongoing public education about the role of the courts and judges are tools that should be used to ensure that the public understands the role of retention elections. Retention elections give the public the responsibility of maintaining fair and impartial courts, and public education is key to making this system work.

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Nov 30 2010

A Call for a Change in Judicial Conduct

Recently, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a letter to the editor written by PMC’s executive director and deputy director. The letter came in response to an article describing the fact that judges in Pennsylvania legally can, and do, accept gifts from lawyers and businesses that might later appear in court. The rules allow the acceptance of such gifts as long as it is disclosed.

The letter criticizes the practice because it creates an appearance of impropriety and bias:

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People must believe they get a fair shake when they stand before a judge. Nothing should be permitted that undermines that belief. Allowing judges to accept gifts creates the appearance that judge may be biased in favor the gift-giver. Whether or not such bias exists, the public’s perception that a judge has been improperly influenced is damaging not only to that judge but to the entire court system.

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The letter concludes with a call for a change to the court rules. Disclosure cannot combat the appearance of bias. The only way to restore public confidence in the partiality of the courts is to prevent judges from accepting gifts altogether.

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