Jul 31 2013

Merit Selection Myths: "Elite Attorneys" Control Nominations

One of the most common criticisms of merit selection systems is that “elite” groups of attorneys are nominating judges. The frequently unstated implication is that since the nominators are lawyers, they are going to pick judges who will serve their interests rather than those of the general public.

There are a couple of problems with this argument. First, approximately three-quarters of the states (and the District of Columbia) use merit selection on some level, and all but a couple require there to be non-lawyers on their nominating commissions. Additionally, most states either require that their nominating commissions are composed of an equal number of lawyers and non-lawyers or require (or allow) non-lawyers to be the majority.

Second, the belief that the attorneys on nominating commissions vote based on self-interest is not supported by any evidence. Rather, it is simply a product of stereotypical conceptions of attorneys.

If one looks at the work the attorney and non-attorney members do on any given nominating commission, they will surely see that they nominate judges based upon merit. For example, the Supreme Court Nominating Commission in Kansas collects detailed applications, professional references and writing samples from candidates. The commissioners review all of this material and then conduct exhaustive background checks and interviews. It is only then that they make their decision on who they want to nominate.

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The process is similar in every other state that uses merit selection. And regardless of where you look, you will find that the commissions are made up of dedicated members who are willing to make personal sacrifices to fulfill their duties.

For example, members of the former Tennessee Judicial Nominating Commission would sometimes drive up to fourteen hours round-trip just to interview a candidate. Additionally, they would sacrifice family time, put their own work on hold, and use their vacation time from their regular employment to attend the unpaid Commission meetings. They did all this because they understood how important their work was.

If everyone was informed about the composition of nominating commissions, what type of work they do, and how hard the commissioners work, it is likely that very few people would claim that the commissions are just a bunch of “elite attorneys” choosing judges out of self-interest.

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Sep 14 2011

General Assembly to Take Up Merit Selection

PMC and PMCAction are pleased to announce that Representative Bryan Cutler (R -Lancaster ) along with Representative Josh Shapiro (D -Montgomery), has introduced legislation that would amend the Constitution to institute a Merit Selection system for Pennsylvania’s appellate courts.

The legislation consists of two bills. The first, H.B. 1815, is a constitutional amendment. The second, H.B. 1816, is implementing legislation that sets forth a detailed explanation of how the Merit Selection system would operate.

Rep. Ron Marsico (R-Dauphin), chair of the Judiciary Committee, is planning to schedule a hearing in October.

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We are pleased that this important issue is before the House, and that it again has bipartisan support.  The growing coalition supporting Merit Selection demonstrates that judicial selection reform is an issue that unites Republicans, Democrats, good government advocates, business organizations, lawyers, nonlawyers, minority groups, and all those who care about ensuring that Pennsylvania has the most qualified, fair and impartial judiciary.

We look forward to the House’s consideration of the legislation, and we hope this is only the first step in the process that will ultimately give the people of Pennsylvania the opportunity to decide whether there is a better way to select our appellate court judges.

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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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Jan 24 2011

Changes in Harrisburg Bring Optimism for Merit Selection

Published by under Judges,Merit Selection

Bobby Kerlik at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports that merit selection supporters are hopeful that the political changes in Harrisburg will help advance the cause of reform. Shira Goodman, deputy director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, believes that the Legislature is ready to discuss court reform. She also thinks that this is a move the public will support: “We think the mood in Pennsylvania and the focus on the judiciary show the public is very concerned.”

Judicial reform is being discussed in different forums across the state. The Pennsylvania Bar Association plans to conduct statewide public hearings examining the state’s judiciary as part of its study of the advisability of having a constitutional convention. These meetings will explore judicial selection and judicial campaign financing. There is also the possibility of hearings in the House, according to a spokeswoman for the new head of the House judiciary committee Rep. Ron Marsico. Sen. Jane Earll expressed her support for merit selection, criticizing the money involved in judicial elections: “[T]hey’re inundated with money from special interest groups – it’s become a popularity contest to see who can raise the most money.” We are hopeful that these steps represent a move towards ensuring Pennsylvanians have fair and impartial courts appellate courts.

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Jan 05 2010

"The Need for Reform is Clear"

An editorial in today’s Philadelphia Daily News urges that Merit Selection is a much needed reform.  Discussing the very expensive 2009 Supreme Court elections and the Luzerne County Courthouse scandal,  the Daily News writes:

Welcome to the darker side of the Pennsylvania judiciary, a side that will continue to stay dark as long as we elect judges. . . .

The editorial discusses the danger of fundraising in judicial campaigns, the too important role of the political parties in determining who reaches the bench, and the lack of relevant information for voters trying to decide who should be a judge.

The editorial closes with a shout-out to PMC:adobe creative suite 6 master collection

The need for reform is clear. The advocacy group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts has been a steady voice calling for merit selection through a constitutional amendment.

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Dec 22 2009

New Records May Be Set by 2009 PA Supreme Court Election

Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts today announced that the 2009 Supreme Court election between Republican Joan Orie Melvin (the winning candidate) and Democrat Jack Panella is likely to set new fundraising and spending records.  The final numbers are not yet in, as candidates can continue to raise funds until the end of the year.  But we can now report that the Supreme Court election cost at least $4.5 million, and PMC believes the total is significantly higher.

PMC’s press release documents fundraising and spending by the candidates’ campaigns, but notes that although they together raised and spent over $3.6 million, that is not the whole money story.  Instead, we found it necessary to research who else was spending money on the election.

The answer was political bodies, incuding the state Republican Party, the state Democratic Party, and the Republican Senate Committee.  In fact, the state Republican Party directly funded Judge Orie Melvin’s television campaign, to the tune of at least $975,849.  This means the state Party outspent the candidate’s own campaign.
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Reports also reveal that from January 1, 2009 until November 23, 2009, the state Republican Party spent at least four million more and the state Democratic Party spent close to $2 million. Although the parties were not required to identify the candidates on whom they spent money, it seems reasonable to assume that a good portion of that six million dollars was directed to the Supreme Court election.

Pennsylvania had the nation’s most expensive Supreme Court elections in the 2007-08 election cycle, and the available data is leading elections experts to predict that Pennsylvania will again earn that title for 2009-10.   As PMC’s Lynn Marks explained, “Pennsylvanians should not take pride in leading the nation in spending for judicial elections.  Each dollar raised and spent raises yet another doubt in voters’ minds about whether or not justice is for sale.”

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Dec 11 2009

Facebook Users — Please Help PMC with Just a Few Clicks

Published by under News

For those of you who are fans of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts and also facebook users, there’s an easy way to help PMC while you’re busy on facebook. Chase Charitable Giving is running a challenge that will award $5 million to small nonprofits. The first stage will award $25,000 to the 100 nonprofits who get the most votes on facebook.  Please vote for PMC in this challenge.  Voting ends today, and you get 20 votes — we only need one.

Vote Now by clicking here:

Voting ends on December 11th!

If you are on Facebook, here’s all you will need to do to vote:


1) Click here: http://apps.facebook.com/chasecommunitygiving/charities/781338

2) After clicking on the link above, Facebook will ask you if you want to “Allow Access” to Chase Community Giving (CCG).

3) Click the “Allow” button (note – you can always remove the application from your account after you vote, but it is not an annoying application, as some can be).

4) This will bring you to our page on the CCG Facebook site.

5) In order to vote, you must click the “Become a Fan” button. This will make you a “fan” of CCG.

6) Vote for PMC by clicking the “Vote for Charity” button with the handprint image.

Thanks for your support. Remember, voting ends today!

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Nov 18 2009

Governor Rendell Calls for Merit Selection of Judges

Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell began a 3-month tour of the state in which he is calling for sweeping changes, intended to overhaul the notoriously broken political process in the state.  Appropriately, the Governor began his education campaign in Luzerne County, where judicial corruption of an unprecedented scale has damaged the public’s confidence in government at all levels, but particularly in the judiciary.

One of the three core-changes the Governor is targeting to purge corruption from state politics is to switch to merit selection of appellate court judges. Speaking to various audiences, including the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader editorial board, the Scranton Chamber of Commerce, and students at Wilkes University, the Governor highlighted two of the serious flaws with our current system of judicial selection: confusion in the voting booth, and money. The Times-Leader reported:

‘People don’t have a clue who they are voting for,’ Rendell said. ‘In an exit poll conducted five years ago, voters were asked five minutes after they voted to name any of the judicial candidates they voted for, and 50 percent couldn’t remember one.'”

Rendell also criticized political campaign donations to judges. ‘Who gives money to judicial candidates? It’s lawyers, for the most part,’ he said.”

The antidote the Governor proposed is to put qualified judges on the bench through a system of merit selection, where they will be untainted by the corrupting influence of money that Luzernites are, unfortunately, all too familiar with.

This message was music to the ears of Lynn Marks and Shira Goodman of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts (PMC), an organization which has long been calling for Pennsylvania to adopt merit selection for the appellate courts. As PMC’s Lynn Marks explained:

‘Merit selection focuses on getting the most qualified candidates on the bench, offers an opportunity for qualified men and women of all backgrounds from all over Pennsylvania to serve and gets judges out of the fundraising business.'”

The other changes proposed in the Governor’s plan are to implement campaign-finance reform for elected politicians to limit the influence of lobbyists on the state’s lawmakers, and to prevent incumbent legislators from maintaining their power through absurd reapportionment of voting districts.

You will recall that in the just-passed race for a vacant seat on the state’s Supreme Court, vast sums of money were spent on negative advertising. According to many commentators, the race was particularly important to the political parties this year because of the reapportionment issue. In a state like ours, where judges hang party labels after their names (we are one of 6 states that elect judges at all levels in partisan elections), the Supreme Court’s role in deciding contested reapportionment questions becomes a political question and Supreme Court elections become tempting targets for the influence of big money.

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We are delighted that Governor Rendell is bringing the problems with electing judges front and center, and think there is no better place to launch this message than a county that has felt first-hand what hell can be wrought by judges tainted by the influence of money.

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Nov 01 2009

Hard on the Voters

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette today explores whether voters can sort through and make decisions about nine candidates running for the Superior Court, one of two intermediate appellate courts in Pennsylvania:

There are 15 positions on the Superior Court bench, and four are open this year.

But in a judicial race like this, it is likely that voters know little about the nine candidates from around the state who are vying for a seat.

“The person who really wants to be responsible about it really has to work hard,” Ms. Goodman [of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts] said.

That means reading online profiles, seeking out bar association recommendations and watching available debates.

But G. Terry Madonna, a political analyst at Franklin & Marshall College, doesn’t expect much of that to happen this year.

“These candidates will not be known to the voters,” he said. “They won’t recognize their names, let alone what they stand for.”

This is troubling, because it can discourage voters from participating in these elections.  Traditionally, voter turn-out in judicial election years is low.  And, many who do show up to vote for other offices, such as District Attorney or County Commissioner, often throw up their hands and decide to leave the judicial section of the ballot blank.

The problem is, the decision about who serves on our appellate courts is very important.

That’s why Ms. Goodman’s organization supports judicial merit selection rather than election of judges.

“Judges have a really important role in our society,” she said. “Their decisions affect everybody. The courts have far-reaching power, and voters don’t really think about that until they are in court.”

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Oct 26 2009

Money is Poison

Published by under Judges,News

We’ve been talking about the poisonous influence of money in judicial elections for a long time.  Now, the candidates are talking about it, too.

According to John Micek over at Capitol Ideas, Supreme Court candidate Joan Orie Melvin made this a topic of her address to the Press Club today.  She complained about the $1 million contributed to the campaign of her opponent Jack Panella by the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers’ PAC, the Committee for a Better Tomorrow. When asked about the $125,000 she also accepted from the PAC, she “claimed there was no comparison between the money she accepted from the trial bar and the money her competitor received.”

But Orie Melvin’s initial characterization of the contributions to her opponent offers a more convincing take on the perception contributions to judicial elections create: “”It’s pay-to-play, it’s justice for sale.’” This is surely what the public sees when the money is discussed, and it doesn’t matter how much is at issue.  It’s the fact of the contribution that makes an impression on the public.

Micek concludes his post with a discussion with PMC’s Shira Goodman:

What matters. . . is the public perception that money buys access to courtrooms – period.

“In our mind, enough is enough already,” she said.

We’ve always tried to make the point that judges are different from other public officials. As such, they should be selected differently. The way it stands now, we treat judicial candidates pretty much like other candidates.  Doing so makes it harder for the public — and even the judges themselves — to recognize the special role judges play in our system of government.  The more we blur the lines before judges reach the bench, the more blurred the lines stay.  Putting on the robe can’t be a single magic moment.  The entire process of becoming a judge should speak to the special nature of the judicial function.  Money is poison.

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