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Jan 18 2012

Judicial Politics in Wisconsin Undermines Public Trust

Published by under Merit Selection

The courts have become a football in Wisconsin’s ongoing political fights.  Wisconsin’s judges, like those in Pennsylvania, are elected, and judicial elections have become markedly more contentious since Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s row with the state’s labor unions last year.  The Wisconsin State Journal has called for merit selection stating:

 Wisconsin’s broken system for selecting members to its highest court favors partisanship and political connections when justices are appointed by governors — with zero oversight — to fill vacancies. And when elections actually do occur, Wisconsin’s system for selecting its top judges favors campaign skills and special interest backing.  Lost in the process is the need for experience, independence and impartiality.

The State Journal called for a system of merit selection that relies on a citizens nominating commission to screen candidates for potential appointment by the governor.:

Many liberal and conservative activists would rather continue to fight for control of the court in expensive, mud-slinging elections. But Wisconsin deserves and needs a high court with honor, one that doesn’t favor either political party, one that makes decisions based on the law regardless of the political fallout.

Merit selection is the best answer to Wisconsin’s embarrassing and dysfunctional state Supreme Court.

A poll conducted by Justice at Stake has

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shown that recent judicial politicking and conflict has reduced Wisconsinites’ faith in their Supreme Court from 52% three years ago to 33% today.  This highlights the dangers of judicial elections.  Whether such elections actually produce more corruption, the public’s faith in the judicial system is undermined by the perception of favoritism resulting from candidates’ fundraising and political ties.


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Dec 16 2011

"Campaign Cash Finds its Way to the Courtroom"

Published by under Merit Selection

That’s the tile of an op-ed by two of our our partners — Justice at Stake’s Bert Brandenburg and the Brennan Center’s Adam Skaggs — in Reuters.  It explores  the growing problems caused by campaign contributions in judicial elections.  The authors recount the increasing costs of judicial elections, the source of the funding, and the rise of “super spenders.”  They then remind us that “Court cases are supposed to be decided by the law, not by who wrote the biggest campaign check to the judge.”  The public concern about this is also growing, as recent polling data reveals that “Voters clearly recognize the risks to fair and impartial courts when judges have to depend on deep-pocketed benefactors to gain a seat on the bench.

The role of money in judicial elections and the public perception that campaign contributions affect judicial decision-making are critical reasons to find a better way to choose viagra without prescriptions judges.  Merit Selection takes judges out of the fundraising business; no longer would the public have to worry whether a lawyer or party in court had contributed to the campaign of one of the judges or justices deciding the case.

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Oct 05 2011

PMC and Justice At Stake Weigh in on Philadelphia Retention Controversy

In a letter published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, PMC and Justice At Stake argue that when political parties demand “contributions” from sitting judges for support in retention elections, the whole purpose of retention elections has been undermined.  The letter responds to a report that the Philadelphia Democratic Party has requested $10,000 “contributions” from judges standing for retention in exchange for support on election day.

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PMC and Justice At Stake explain that retention elections are yes/no, uncontested and nonpartisan and serve to let the public determine whether a judge should remain on the bench.  PMC and Justice at Stake urge that we are all responsible for returning retention elections to their original purpose: “Lawyers, bar associations, civic groups, and those who care about good government and fair courts — including the media — must ensure that retention elections are what they were intended to be: a referendum on the judge’s performance on the bench, not another political contest.”

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The letter closes with this strong statement about why we need reform:  “The [Democratic] party’s greedy ‘request’ is a reminder that judges shouldn’t be elected in the first place.  Judges and money should not mix. Politics should stay out of the courtroom.”

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Aug 01 2011

Arkansas Supreme Court Forms Judicial Election Task Force

Published by under Judicial Elections

In response to issues arising in courts around the country, the Arkansas Supreme Court has formed a Judicial Election Task Force to consider changes to their system of judicial selection. Currently, Arkansas holds nonpartisan judicial elections for all positions on the bench. However according to the Arkansas Supreme Court, “Judicial elections are becoming much more expensive, vitriolic, and are receiving more interest from third-party donors.” The Task Force plans to focus on four areas: voter guides, rapid response teams, runoff election changes, and recusals. To aid this endeavor, the group will be utilizing resources created by fair courts organizations including the National Center for State Courts, Justice at Stake, and the American Judicature Society. PMC wishes the Task Force the best as they strive to protect the integrity of the judiciary.

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Jul 01 2011

Alabama Chief Justice Cites Judicial Elections as a Reason for her Resignation

This week, Alabama State Supreme Court Chief Justice Sue Bell announced her resignation effective August 1st, 2011. In her statement, she cited the failure of AL courts to modify their judicial selection system as one of her reasons for leaving. “Alabama appellate court justices should be selected either on merit, and retained or rejected by a vote of all the people, or at least cam­paign without the added po­litical emphasis of party la­bels,” declared Cobb. According to former president of the Alabama State Bar Association, J. Mark White, “She tried every way possible, along with the bar, to get a more civilized and economical way to select our judges.”

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The numbers representing campaign costs in Alabama’s partisan elections are astounding. A study conducted by Justice at Stake revealed that AL Supreme Court candidates raised over $40.9 million in the past decade. According to a Thomson Reuters News & Insight article, “Cobb herself received $2.62 million in contributions during the 2006 Alabama Supreme Court election, a multi-candidate election that was the costliest state judicial race ever, with candidates raising a total of $13.5 million, according to Follow the Money.” In her resignation, Cobb explained that this method of judicial selection “perpetuate[s] the perception that judges are selected more on campaign contributions than on ability.”

Calls for judicial selection reform can be heard throughout the country. New York recently changed their recusal standards in an effort to restore public confidence in judicial impartiality. An impassioned editorial beseeches Alabama to do the same: “If anything, Alabamians should question judges’ impartiality even more than people do in other states, and the numbers from national polls already are high. In a Harris Poll last June, 71 percent of those surveyed nationally believe campaign contributions to judges have some or a great deal of influence on their decisions.”

The Justice at Stake survey lists Pennsylvania second after Alabama in campaign contributions, receiving around $21 million. However, recusal rules alone will not solve the problem. PMC agrees with Chief Justice Cobb that judges should not be obligated to raise millions of dollars to earn a seat on the bench and worries about qualified candidates who may be dissuaded by the need to raise enormous amounts of money. Cobb explained, “Another statewide race at this point in time would require me to raise millions of dollars while constantly endeavoring to appear and remain impartial and would require me to sacrifice precious time which I could be spending with my family.”

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May 05 2011

Public Hearing on the Judiciary

Published by under Merit Selection

Yesterday the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Constitutional Review Commission subcommittee on the Judiciary held a public hearing at the Pennsylvania Bar Institute in Philadelphia. Testimony was given by representatives of Justice at Stake (JAS), the Jewish Social Policy Action Network (JSPAN), Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts (PMC), and the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania as well as attorney John W. Morris.

Testimony included discussion of court funding, merit selection, and judicial discipline. PMC found support for its merit selection plan in representatives from JAS, JSPAN, and the League of Women Voters, all of whom spoke strongly in favor of merit selection. These testimonies emphasized the harmful effects of a judicial selection system infused with money and politics. Judge Phyllis Beck spoke on behalf of JSPAN and described the organization’s support for merit selection, and added her personal experiences with various methods of judicial selection to demonstrate why she favors merit selection over other procedures. The speakers acknowledged that merit selection cannot entirely remove politics from the process, but explained that it is best way to decrease politics and remove money from judicial selection.

The hearing will be broadcast on PCN on Friday, May 6th at 8:10 P.M.

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Feb 23 2011

North Carolina Voters Wary of Courtroom Cash

Published by under Judges,News,Our Perspective

A new public opinion poll in North Carolina show just how corrosive judicial elections are to public confidence in a fair and impartial judiciary. The poll, which was conducted by the North Carolina Center for Voter Education, and our friends at the Justice at Stake Campaign, ” finds that 94 percent of North Carolina voters believe campaign contributions have some sway on a judge’s decision, including 43 percent who say campaign donations can greatly affect a ruling.”

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“Trust in the courts is eroded when judges have to dial for dollars from parties who appear before them,” said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake, and we couldn’t agree more. Poll after poll after poll has shown that the public is convinced that the decisions of elected judges are influenced by campaign donations.

States have tried several ways to combat this perception. North Carolina has a first-in-the-nation system of public financing that allows judicial candidates (who can raise a small initial fund) to run for the bench without having to assemble huge campaign warchests. Recently, court rules in New York were modified to prevent court administrators from assigning a case to a judge if any of the lawyers or participants in the case donated $2,500 or more in the previous two years.

Our opinion is that the best way to restore trust in the impartiality of Pennsylvania’s appellate courts is to relieve our appellate court judges and justices of the burden of campaign financing in the first place. If campaign donations don’t play a role in putting appellate judges on the bench, then the public doesn’t have to wonder if those donations had an influence on the way those judges rule. That’s why we believe Merit Selection is a superior solution.

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Oct 28 2010

Expensive Judicial Elections Create the Perception of “Tainted Justice”

Over at Gavel Grab, Peter Hardin draws attention to the costly judicial elections underway in Alabama. Noting that Alabama has the most expensive Supreme Court elections in the country, Hardin examines an editorial that appeared in the Press-Register criticizing judicial elections.

The editorial opens with a strong critique of judicial elections in Alabama: “As long as state Supreme Court justices have to raise money – sometimes lots of it – to win their seats, justice in Alabama is going to look like it’s for sale.” It goes on to describe how judicial candidates go about raising money in the same way as candidates for other offices – going on the campaign trail, shaking hands, and actively fundraising. This creates the perception that judges can be influenced by campaign donations and political preferences. The editorial notes that Alabama’s rules regarding political action committees worsen the perception problem because they allow candidates and donors to hide the source of donations. The editorial echoes Justice at Stake executive director Bert Brandenburg’s concerns over judicial fundraising:

“As long as we’re asking more judges to dial for dollars from the people who appear before them, then the more we’re asking judges to act like Huey Long on the campaign trail and then turn around and act like Solomon in the court room.”

We agree that judges should not be in the fundraising business, and that their presence there diminishes public confidence in an impartial judiciary. We believe that a change to the selection process is necessary, and that merit selection is the way to ensure fair and impartial courts. The editorial concludes with a concern that we share in Pennsylvania:

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“As long as the litmus test for Alabama Supreme Court justices is how well they can fund a political campaign, then the state’s going to be stuck with the reputation – or at least the perception – that it tolerates tainted justice.

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Oct 11 2010

Judicial campaign spending is on the rise

Published by under Judges,Merit Selection

Over at Gavel Grab, Peter Hardin notes the growing trend of expensive judicial elections.

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This trend is in part due to an increased expenditure on television ads. Referring to information contained in a news release complied by the Brennan Center for Justice and the Justice at Stake Campaign, Hardin explains that television ads are now being used in six states with upcoming judicial elections. Through October 6, more than $2 million has been spent on air time for judicial elections. Another indicator of this spending trend is that Minnesota has seen increased “partisan politicking.” Minnesota has traditionally been a state that avoided expensive Supreme Court elections.

The news release cites Charles Hall, a spokesperson for the Justice at Stake Campaign in Washington as summing up the 2010 judicial campaign season: “The new politics of judicial elections continues to reach states that haven’t experienced it before, and that’s been the story of the 2010 campaign.”

We have long been concerned about the role of money in judicial elections, and as the amount of money involved grows so do the reasons to worry. With more states engaging in expensive judicial elections, the problem is only getting worse. Expensive judicial campaigns create the perception that justice is for sale. Merit selection is a way to take money out of the equation and maintain judicial independence.

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Sep 21 2010

“A Recipe for Corruption”

An editorial in the Birmingham News condemns Alabama’s system of judicial elections and supports a change to an appointment-retention system. The editorial looks at the recent poll by Justice at Stake, in which a majority of Republicans and Democrats asked said that they believed campaign donations significantly impact court rulings.

Noting Alabama’s reputation for having the most expensive judicial campaigns as well as the ease with which Alabama law allows special interests to disguise the mo

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ney they give to judicial campaigns by going through political action committees, the editorial explains the trust problems judicial election fundraising is creating:

It’s a recipe for corruption in any arena, but it’s particularly corrosive when it comes to courts that are supposed to be impartial arbiters of justice. Even a decision with a firm basis in the law looks shady when the winning party bankrolled the judge.

We agree that the role of money in judicial elections adversely affects the public’s relationship with the court system. Merit Selection is a way to get judges out of the fundraising business and restore public confidence in the courts.

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