Jun 27 2011

PMC’s Lynn Marks Promotes Merit Selection in Interview with FoxNews.com

In response to recent criticism that financial support from George Soros is an attempt to “stack the courts,” Executive Director Lynn Marks affirmed the virtue of merit selection in an interview with FoxNews.com. “Merit selection would end the money race and get judges out of the fundraising business.” Marks further critiqued judicial elections’ emphasis on political connections saying that potentially qualified candidates “don’t put their name in for nominations because they think they don’t have the political connections or access to dollars.” Politics play an especially significant role in Pennsylvania’s judicial elections in which candidates identify with either the Democratic or Republican Party and must raise huge amounts of money to win their races.

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Marks highlighted the need for merit selection for appellate courts explaining, “judges should resolve disputes based on evidence – they’re not supposed to be responsive to public pressure.” Contrary to assertions that appointment of judges through merit selection is undemocratic, merit selection actually requires that the public support it. As Marks said, “Merit selection requires a change in the Constitution, so a bill must… go before the public. So when people say, ‘oh, you’re changing the way we vote’ — yes, but only if the people want to change the way we vote.”

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May 17 2011

Politics in the Judicial Primary

Recently, an AP article looked at various positions at stake in Tuesday’s primary election, making note of difference in candidates, issues, endorsements, and money that has been raised. Sadly, political issues are playing an ever growing role in judicial elections. An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer explains that this is due in part to a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision that relaxed restrictions on what judicial candidates can talk about.

The change in these restrictions is apparent from judicial candidate Paul Panepinto’s campaign website, which announces that he is Roman Catholic and “pro life.” Panepinto, currently a Philadelphia Common Pleas judge, is running for an open seat on the Commonwealth Court. PMC’s executive director Lynn Marks explains that the statement “does not cross the line of what a candidate can and can’t do, but it does send a message.”

Issue voting is a problem in judicial elections because it makes our choice in judges too similar to how we choose politicians. The judiciary is different from the other branches of government, and the way we choose judges should likewise be different. Pennsylvania deserves a fair and impartial judiciary with judges selected based on their qualifications and experience. Judicial elections allow money and politics to play too great a role in the process. It’s time to get judges out of the business of campaigning, and Merit Selection is the best way to accomplish that.

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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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Feb 18 2011

Take Back Our Courthouses

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PMC issued the following press release following the announcement of the jury’s verdict in the federal corruption trial of former Luzerne County judge Mark Ciavarella:

Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts (PMC), reacting to the federal jury’s verdict in the trial of former Luzerne County judge Mark Ciavarella, urged the public to “Take back our courthouses.”
Executive Director Lynn A. Marks explained that “Courthouses belong to the people. Judges, court staff, and attorneys are there to serve the system, not to manipulate it for personal gain.” Tragically, this fundamental proposition was completely turned upside down in Luzerne County.

Deputy Director Shira Goodman explained that the public must now act to ensure that the lessons from the Luzerne County scandal will resonate across the Commonwealth. “It reminds us all of our own responsibility for our institutions of government and teaches that when something looks off, we must ask questions.”

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PMC encourages the people of Pennsylvania to continue to question how this scandal was allowed to be perpetrated, and how safeguards in the justice system failed to prevent, or at least catch the problems, before the rights of innumerable children and their families were violated. It is time to implement changes that will forestall such abuses of power in the future. PMC urges that “We, the public, must call on our leaders in the Governor’s office, the legislature and the Supreme Court to make sure this happens.”

Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts is a statewide, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working to promote the reform of Pennsylvania’s judicial system.

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Nov 30 2010

The Role of Retention Elections

Yesterday the Legal Intelligencer published an editorial written by PMC about retention elections. Executive director Lynn Marks and deputy director Shira Goodman discuss the difficulties raised for retention elections by the ouster of three Iowa Supreme Court Justices, as well as the appropriate role for retention elections going forward. 

Despite the money and partisan campaigning that occurred in some retention elections this year, PMC remains confident that retention elections have an important function to serve. Ideally, retention elections should: “insulate sitting judges from the most dangerous elements of elections – the influence of campaign contributions, political party pressure and popular opinion. To combat the influence of special interest groups in retention elections, it is important for:

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good government groups, lawyers, bar associations and all those who care about fair and impartial courts to take responsibility for better public education about courts, judges, judicial independence and the role of retention elections.”

The editorial ends with a call for education, and emphasizes the importance of the public’s role in a merit selection system:

there must be systematic, ongoing public education so that there can be a real appreciation for the special role of courts and judges. We need public buy-in of the notion that we are all responsible for protecting fair, impartial, independent courts.

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Jun 29 2010

"Feel Like They're Getting a Fair Shake in Court"

Lynn Marks, PMC’s executive director, joined the moderator of Pennsylvania Newsmakers, Terry Madonna, on Sunday to discuss Merit Selection and the need for judicial selection reform in Pa.

Marks outlined some of the problems inherent in judicial elections:

Just think of yourself in court and then you start wondering, ‘Gee I wonder if Terry made a large contribution to one of those judges. And then I think, ‘I wonder if Terry’s lawyer made contribution, and then I think, ‘Gee I hope my lawyer made a huge contribution.’ I shouldn’t even be thinking that when I’m in a court of justice.

Merit Selection takes judges out of the fundrais

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ing business.  Judicial campaigns would not have to raise money from lawyers, law firms and organizations that later could appear before them in court.

Currently, this overlap between contributors to judicial campaigns and frequent participants in court is a major cause of concern for the public.  It creates the perception that judges are beholden to special interests, which undermines the integrity of the courts.

Under Merit Selection, this fundraising cycle would be broken, and people would not have to question whether a judge might be influenced by a campaign contributor or supporter.  As Marks explained,

“That’s all we’re asking for, is for. . . [litigants] to feel like they’re getting a fair shake in court.”

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Jun 25 2010

PMC on Newsmakers to Discuss Merit Selection

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PMC’s Lynn Marks appears on this week’s Newsmakers with Terry Madonna to discuss Merit Selection of appellate court judges. The show follows PMC’s recent release of a public opinion poll demonstrating widespread support for Merit Selection and an overwhelming desire to have the issue put to a public referendum.

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Here is a list of channels airing the show:

  • WGAL Channel 8 (Harrisburg and Lancaster) Sunday, June 27th at 11:00 AM and 1:35 AM (Saturday late-night)
  • WBPH (Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia) – Monday, June 28th at 8:30 PM
  • WKBS 47 (Altoona) – Saturday, July 3rd at 11:30 AM
  • WPCB 40 (Pittsburgh) – Saturday, July 3rd at 11:30 AM
  • CATV Channel 8 -Tuesday, June 29th at 7:00 PM and Wednesday, June 30th at 1:00 PM
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    Apr 23 2010

    Smart Talk Focuses on Merit Selection

    This morning at 9:30 PMC Executive Director Lynn Marks will appear on WITF’s Smart Talk (89.5 and 93.33 FM Harrisburg)  to discuss Merit Selection and the Governor’s call for the legislature to move the legislation.

    Passage by the legislature is only the

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    first step in the lengthy constitutional amendment process.  If the legislation passes this session, it must pass again during the 2011-2012 session.  Then, it would go on the ballot for the public to vote in a referendum.  We can only change the way we select appellate judges if the people  of Pennsylvania vote to do so.  We hope the public will get the chance to make that decision.

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    Apr 22 2010

    Pennsylvania is Talking About Merit Selection

    Yesterday’s call by Governor Rendell for the legislature to pass the pending Merit Selection bills has got Pennsylvania talking.  An editorial in the Philadelphia Daily News shares the Governor’s sense of urgency to pass the legislation and argues: “Imagine if judges didn’t have to rely on the kindness of ward leaders, or the luck of ballot position.”

    In addition, the Philadelphia Inquirer has a full report on the news conference and quotes the Governor’s exclamation that there is “no excuse for not moving the legislation this year and putting the question on the ballot by late 2011.” The Inquirer also quoted PMC Executive Director Lynn Marks who explained that Merit Selection is designed to get the most qualified, fair and independent people on the appellate courts.

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    tte.com/pg/10112/1052391-454.stm#ixzz0lpZyUxBY”>notes that the Governor is seeking to give a jumpstart to the Merit Selection legislation.  The article quotes local State Senator Jim Ferlo on the need for reform: “The impact of the electoral system on the impartiality of judges puts the fairness of our courts in question, and now requires judicial candidates … to raise millions of dollars to run their campaigns.”

    Additional coverage of the Governor’s press conference and the call for action can be found at WHYY 91 FM, the Citizens’ Voice, the Times Leader, the Patriot-News, and Gavel Grab.

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    Mar 21 2010

    “One of the Drawbacks to Elected Judges”

    KYW 1060 reported on the American Judicature Society report on the degree of overlap between contributors to the campaigns of Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices and those appearing before those justices in Court.

    The news report quoted PMC’s Lynn Marks explaining that although the report does not draw any conclusions about whether the contributions influenced judicial decisionmaking, “Each dollar raised and spent raises doubts in the public’s mind about whether or not justice is for sale.”

    The report quoted Pennsylvania’s Chief Justice Castille’s response:

    ‘I actually share that opinion to some degree myself. . . . The money does have an outward appearance of a lack of fairness in the system.’ Castille says that’s one of the drawbacks to elected judges.

    We very much agree with this assessment and hope Pennsylvanians will have the opportunity to determine whether to change how we select appellate court judges.

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