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Oct 23 2012

Purchasing Justice: A Threat to Impartiality

Published by under Judicial Elections

A recent blog compared NFL referees with courtroom judges.  Both sides want the decider to be impartial and skilled.  However, when judges are required to actively fundraise in order to successfully campaign for a

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seat on the bench and special interest groups, lawyers and litigants who may later appear before the judge donate large sums of money,

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how impartial are the judges?

This problem has ballooned within the last decade.  In 1990, state Supreme Court candidates raised approximately $3 million.  However, by 2000, some high court candidates raised more than $45 million.  Further, some of these contributors are corporate special interests, expecting some sort of benefit for their contribution. A Center for American Progress study reported, “In courtrooms across Pokies the emma watson pokies country, big corporations and other special interests are tilting the playing field in their favor.”

Although judges are supposed to be impartial, there are political movements across the country to oust judges that decide against political partisans.   For example, a Pennsylvania Tea Party faction set out to defeat a few state Supreme Court justices who refused to uphold to voter ID law.  In Iowa, one party, Iowans for Freedom is leading the call to remove Judge David Wiggins.  He was involved in a unanimous ruling legalizing same-sex marriage.  An opposing party, Justice Not Politics has emerged to protect the court system, merit selection and retention.  They explain, “If politics and campaign money are allowed into the courts, justice will be for sale.”


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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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May 16 2012

"The Worst Way to Select Judges"

Published by under Opinion

In a post on the New York Times Editorial Page Editor’s Blog, Andrew Rosenthal asserts:

Elections are the worst way to select judges. The process leaves judges beholden to party bosses, wealthy donors, and the whims of the very, very few people who actually bother to vote.

Rosenthal focuses on Michigan and the recent report of its Judicial Selection Task Force.  He notes the Task Force’s recommendations to make elections truly nonpartisan and require disclosure of all election expenditures

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and donations.  But he opines that:

These are fine, civic-minded ideas, but they’re just band-aids. The best way to fix the system is to change it—to replace elections with gubernatorial appointments based on merit. A bipartisan nominating commission would screen candidates according to defined legal standards.

We agree that elections are not the right way to select judges.  Merit Selection is designed to bring the most qualified, fair and impartial judges to the bench, and it does so through a process that gets those future judges out of the fundraising business. We hope the Pennsylvania legislature will give Pennsylvanians the opportunity to decide in a referendum election whether there is a better way to select our appellate court judges.  Let the House Judiciary Committee know you want the opportunity to decide.

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Mar 16 2012

NY Times Editorial Praises Effort to Implement Merit Selection in PA

Published by under Opinion

An editorial in the New York Times entitled “No Way To Choose A Judge” urges Merit Selection as a good solution for Pennsylvania. The editorial recounts recent judicial election news in Alabama and the ongoing investigation into the use of government staff for the elections of State Senator Jane Orie and her sister Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin. Then the editorial notes:

These seamy doings have helped spark a promising effort by Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a nonprofit advocacy group, to persuade the State Legislature to approve a constitutional amendment that would scrap competitive partisan elections. Instead the state would adopt a new system of initial merit appointment and nonpartisan retention elections.

The editorial notes that no system of choosing judges is perfect but opines that Merit Selection “would be a start toward ridding the state’s courtrooms of politics and campaign cash.”

Passing the pending legislation is the first step in a long process of amending the constitution, a process that culminates in a public referendum.

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We hope the people of Pennsylvania will get the opportunity to decide whether there is a better way to choose appellate court judges.

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Jan 31 2012

Trying to Solve the Money Problem

Published by under Merit Selection

We know that the public is increasingly concerned about the influence campaign contributions to judicial candidates may have in the courtroom.  Yet, many states, including Pennsylvania, continue to elect judges in expensive elections that essentially require judicial campaigns to seek funds from lawyers, law firms, businesses, unions and other special interest groups with frequent litigation in the state courts.  A recent New York Times editorial summed up the problem: “there is an urgent need to protect judicial integrity from the flood of campaign cash.”

The editorial goes on to praise a new rule adopted by the Tennessee Supreme Court prohibiting judges from hearing cases when campaign spending by lawyers or litigants raises a reasonable question of their impartiality.  “It requires judges to step aside when the level of campaign support raises a reasonable concern about his or her ability to be fair.””  The rule applies to direct contributions to a judicial campaign or independent expenditures that indirectly support a campaign.  Republican legislators in Madison County, Illinois have proposed a similar new rule. It would require attorneys to disclose to the judge and all parties to a lawsuit any campaign contributions of more than $500 made to

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that judge by the attorney or their firm within the past five years. The judge would then have to recuse  from the case if a motion to do so was filed by any party to the case who did not make a contribution.

The New York Times opined that it would be beneficial for many more court systems to follow suit and specifically identified Pennsylvania as a problem: “campaign spending problems have plagued judicial races in states like Illinois, Alabama and Pennsylvania.”  The new recusal rules are important steps in reducing the influence of campaign contributions and restoring public confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary.  But the best solution is to get judges out of the fundraising business by choosing them in a way that gets money out of the process.  That way is Merit Selection.

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Dec 12 2011

Talking About Whether There’s a Better Way

Published by under Merit Selection

Recently, we reported that a debate was held in Minnesota about whether to change the way judges are selected.  Now, we’re reading that similar debates are being held and questions raised about judicial selection in Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin.  While each of these states is different and has its own unique no prescription viagra experiences in the judicial selection arena, the critical point is that the issue is being publicly discussed.  These discussions are important steps in the lengthy process of changing how judges are selected.  It is essential that the public be engaged and have the opportunity to debate and discuss the issue.

We know Pennsylvanians have strong views about how judges should be selected, and we also know that Pennsylvanians want the opportunity to decide if there is a better way to select judges than the current electoral process. Merit Selection bills are pending in both houses of the legislature, and it anticipated that the House Judiciary Committee will reschedule the public hearing that was initially scheduled for November.

We hope that Pennsylvania will soon be talking about judicial selection as well.  It is time.

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Sep 26 2011

The Quest to Find a Better Way

An article in Reuters examines an effort occupying several states: the quest to find a better way to select judges.

The article profiles the ongoing debate in Tennessee over whether to continue its Merit Selection system.  Defenders of the current system, including the legal and business communities, argue that ” judicial elections would lead to expensive campaigns — that they’d be asked to bankroll — and biased judges.”  By contrast, those pressing to change the system are eager to get more conservative Republicans on the bench.

The article also looks to Pennsylvania, recognizing the recent introduction of Merit Selection legislation designed as “an an effort to rein in the role of money and fundraising in judicial elections.”  We hope this effort will be successful and will lead to the opportunity for Pennsylvanians to decide how they want to choose appellate court judges.  (Remember, amending the Constitution to implement Merit Selection requires identical legislation to pass in two successive sessions and then a positive public referendum.)

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We know there will be discussion and debate. We just think it’s time to be talking about this critical issue.

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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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Aug 26 2010

"An Intelligent, Apolitical, Public Discussion"

An editorial in the Youngstown News (Ohio) calls for a meaningful public dialogue about whether to change to Merit Selection.  Citing the recent New Politics of Judicial Elections report, the editorial observes:

The issue of money and the courts is not new. . . .

But the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that threw open the floodgates to corporations and labor unions to contribute to political candidates is a game changer.

Can the public be assured the courts will remain fair and independent when money i

s flowing like water?

The editorial notes that in the past, Merit Selection has not passed in Ohio, but it argues that changed circumstances demand a new look.  Here is the call to action:

There is no doubt that the current money-based system of filling state supreme court seats has fed public cynicism and distrust of the judicial system. It’s time — again — for an intelligent, apolitical, public discussion.

That sounds like a very good prescription for Pennsylvania as well. We hope Pennsylvanians will have the chance to have such a discussion about Merit Selection of appellate court judges.

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Aug 16 2010

New Report on Judicial Elections: Things are Getting Worse

Today, PMC partners Justice At Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute on Money in State Politics issued a new report analyzing the last decade of judicial elections entitled “The New
Politics of Judicial Elections: 2000-2009.”
Pennsylvania is prominently featured in the Report, which examines the explosion in fundraising and spending in these elections as well as the increasing participation of special

The Report notes that Pennsylvania ranks second in the nation for election spending during the decade.  In addition, Pennsylvania was home to the most expensive Supreme Court election in the nation during the 2007-08
cycle.  In that year, there were two vacancies on the Supreme Court. According to the Report, candidate and third-party spending totaled $10.3 million.  In 2009, as the report notes, the high spending trend continued in Pennsylvania, and we saw the most expensive single seat race in our history.

The Report certainly highlights the increasing importance of cold, hard cash in judicial elections and also reminds us that poll after poll demonstrates that the public — and judges as well — be

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lieve that campaign contributions influence judicial decision making.

But there is some cause for optimism.  The Report notes that reform efforts are making progress, and that Merit Selection is gaining ground in states throughout the nation.

The Report presents a cautionary tale — state judicial elections are getting much worse when measured by the factors that affect public confidence: money and special interest participation.  The public wants
fair and impartial courts. Money is widely viewed as a corrupting influence and it undermines the public’s confidence in our courts and judiciary.  There is a clear solution: get money out of the process of
choosing judges. The most effective way to do that is Merit Selection.

Here are the links to the Report:

Full Report

Letter From Justice Sandra Day O’Connor

Executive Summary

State Profiles, 2000-2009

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