Jun 07 2012

The Time is Ripe for Reform

Published by under Merit Selection News

Today’s Pittsburgh Post Gazette editorial blasts the House Judiciary Committee for failing to advance Merit Selection legislation even as a sitting Supreme Court Justice has been indicted for alleged illegal campaign activity. “[T]he occasion has never been riper to get politics out of judicial elections. The headlines on Justice Joan Orie Melvin being charged with using her staff to do campaign work on state time surely wouldn’t be written if a merit selection process were used.”

Despite the current scandal, the House Judiciary Committee voted 13-12 to table House Bill 1815 instead of moving forward with the constitutional amendment process that would give voters the opportunity to decide for themselves whether there is a better way to choose appellate judges.

A 2010 poll of PA voters revealed that 93% want the opportunity to vote on whether we should change the way we select judges. It is unfortunate that the legislature has not yet given the people this opportunity.  The editorial’s conclusion about this failure

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is telling:  “What an irony: Lawmakers who want the people to keep voting for judges don’t want the people to have the chance to decide whether they want to keep voting for judges.”

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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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Sep 18 2009

Should Judicial Candidates be Permitted to Deceive the Public to Get Elected?

Published by under Judges,News

Yet another reason why judges and elections should not mix, brought to our attention by our friends over at GavelGrab: In 2008, Michael Gabelman, then a Wisconsin Circuit Court judge, ran a television ad against his opponent, a then-sitting justice on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Louis Butler, Jr. The ad was, at best, deceptive.  A three-judge panel that heard arguments in the case on Wednesday is trying to decide whether the statements in the ad, put together, constituted an outright lie.  The facts of the case, in short, via the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel:

A month before the election, Gableman ran an ad about a case Butler worked on as a public defender involving child sex offender Reuben Lee Mitchell.

“Butler found a loophole. Mitchell went on to molest another child,” the ad said. It then questioned whether the public would be safe with Butler on the court.

Unmentioned in the ad was that Butler won the appeal, but the Supreme Court ruled that errors in the case were not sufficient to overturn the conviction. Mitchell didn’t commit the subsequent crime until he was released on parole.

The Wisconsin Code of Judicial Conduct, like Pennsylvania’s, prohibits false or misleading statements by judicial candidates.

According to Gabelman’s attorney James Bopp, Jr., however, judicial candidates have a right to mislead voters in advertisements, even if it is ill-advised, as long as they are not knowingly misrepresenting information about their opponents. The Journal Sentinel article continues:

“I don’t think misleading is something good, (but) it can’t be sanctioned,” he said.

“The discussion, the debate, the issues that are raised, that’s for the voters to settle – not the courts. . .”

Is this why we elect judges in Pennsylvania?  So candidates can do their best to convince the public that their opponents are evil? Call it what you will – deception or lies – is this type of smear campaign an inevitable result of forcing candidates for the bench to run for their positions? It is an unfair burden to ask those meant to be impartial interpreters of the law to justify their qualifications in expensive 30-second sound bites.

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Aug 08 2008

Tennessee Officials Committed To Renewing Merit Plan

During a recent trip to Memphis, Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen expressed his continued commitment to renewing the “Tennessee Plan” for Merit Selection of the state’s judges. Governor Bredesen acknowledged that the current plan isn’t perfect, but he believes in it, and he’s working to preserve it.

The preservation of the Tennessee Plan is the vastly more important thing to me than any messing around or fooling around with the mechanics of the selection. I’d like to see it opened up. I’d like to see something like some additional selections… but preservation of the Tennessee Plan is a must-do for the state.

The governor also noted that other state officials, including Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and Tennessee House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, support renewal of the Plan.

Memphis attorney Buck Lewis also expressed his opinion that the Tennessee Plan should be renewed. Lewis is the new president of the Tennessee Bar Association, and is a former judicial candidate that the governor had previously refused to nominate. But on the importance of the Tennessee plan, Lewis and Bredesen see eye to eye. “If you care about diversity and quality on our state’s appellate courts, you ought to care about us retaining the Tennessee Plan,” Lewis said.

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It’s good to know that these officials are committed to preserving Merit Selection of judges in Tennessee. We wish them the best of luck.

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May 05 2008

Merit Selection Bills Formally Introduced

Published by under Merit Selection News

To implement a Merit Selection system for the appellate courts requires a constitutional amendment. This requires passage of legislation in two consecutive legislative sessions, followed by a public referendum.

The first step is now underway. Bills containing the proposed text of the amendment, as well as the enabling legislation creating the nominating commission, are currently being considered by committees in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The text of the proposed amendment and accompanying enabling legislation are available: SENATE BILL No. 1324 and HOUSE BILL No. 2488 (proposed amendment); SENATE BILL No. 1325 and HOUSE BILL No. 2386 (proposed enabling legislation).

A summary of the legislation is available here.

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Apr 27 2008

Overheard at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference

Published by under Merit Selection News

Yesterday, PMC Associate Director Shira Goodman made a presentation about Merit Selection to the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference. Goodman spoke on a panel dedicated to The Future of Reform in Pennsylvania and opened her remarks by saying “I’m here to talk to you about why we believe it’s time for Pennsylvanians to decide how they want to pick their appellate judges.” The presentation about the benefits of Merit Selection was well-received, and is being broadcast on the Pennsylvania Cable Network.

You can find more coverage on the conference in Philadelphia’s The Bulletin newspaper.

UPDATE: Videos of the conference speakers and panels are now available.

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Apr 22 2008

Missouri House Protects Judicial Selection From Partisan Politics

On April 17th, the Missouri state House rejected an effort to radically revise the state’s “Missouri Plan,” which has served as a model for Merit Selection of judges in 30 other states. Proposed changes to the plan would have eliminated the nonpartisan nomination commission, and replaced it with a system controlled entirely by the governor and state legislators.

A broad coalition of community groups, lead by Missourians for Fair and Impartial Courts, made it clear to the legislature that the voters of Missouri didn’t want to politicize judicial selection. The state House clearly got the message, and decisively defeated the proposed changes.

The vote caps the most recent skirmish in a long fight to protect Missouri’s Merit Selection system from efforts to make its process more political. We’re glad that the people and legislators of Missouri recognize that nonpartisan, nonpolitical judicial selection is an important part of a fair and impartial justice system.

via Gavel Grab

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Apr 10 2008

Judicial Elections “Getting Nastier”

Published by under News

In the wake of the recent Wisconsin election, U.S. News and Word Report examines the trend toward increasingly contentious judicial elections, and concludes that the “tactics in the Wisconsin race exemplify a broader shift in judicial elections nationwide.”

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Apr 04 2008

Bitter Election Battle Shakes Up Wisconsin Supreme Court

Published by under Judges,News

After months of attack ads, and millions of dollars in third party spending, the race for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court is over. Wisconsin has a new justice. The rest of us have a clear example of why we need to protect selection of appellate judges from elective politics.

Although Wisconsin’s judicial elections are technically non-partisan, support for the candidates lined up neatly along political lines. Incumbent Justice Louis Butler received support from Democrats and labor groups, while challenger Burnett County Circuit Judge Michael Gableman’s backing came from Republicans and conservative organizations.

In a race that the Associated press called “one of the state’s nastiest,” outside interest groups on both sides of the political fence spent millions of dollars on advertising. While nobody knows exactly how much money these groups poured into their ads, CNN reports that, as of Monday, more than $3 million had been spent “just on TV ads in the state’s top three media markets: Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay.”

It isn’t just the dollar amount that’s scary. WisPolitics.com’s election blog reports that these groups outspent the candidates themselves 11-to-1 on TV ads. Even the candidates themselves expressed concern that their messages were being overwhelmed by the third-party ad blitz.

Finally, the content and tone of the advertising helped push the race into the media spotlight. Misleading attack ads from both sides prompted the editorial board of the Wisconsin State Journal to forgo endorsing either candidate. Instead, they chose to endorse “a better method of choosing state Supreme Court justices — a method called Merit Selection.”

We hope that the voters and legislators of Pennsylvania will see the wisdom in the State Journal’s declaration that “justice should be blind, but voters should not be blinded by misinformation.” It’s time to remove partisan bickering and big-money politics from selection of appellate judges. It’s time to replace partisan election of Pennsylvania’s appellate judges with Merit Selection.

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Mar 27 2008

Governor Rendell “Sounds Off” For Merit Selection

Published by under Merit Selection News

The Legal Intelligencer’s blog reports that Governor Rendell spoke about the need for Merit Selection during the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division annual meeting Tuesday. The Governor says he supports Merit Selection of appellate judges “because judicial candidates shouldn’t have to raise money from lawyers or potential litigants,” and “the state’s elected system of judges is a terrible system for diversity.”

Governor Rendell is a long-time believer in Merit Selection, and we appreciate his on-going support for the effort to change the way we pick appellate judges.

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