Aug 21 2012

It Doesn’t Make Sense

Published by under Judicial Elections

The Orie Melvin case continues to highlight the problems that result from electing judges.  The entire case is a product of judicial elections:  the Supreme Court justice is accused of illegal use of government resources for her campaigns for the Supreme Court.  And now, as the Pittsburgh Tribune Review reports, in the midst of the Court of Judicial Discipline’s consideration of whether Justice Orie Melvin should continue to draw a pay check during her suspension, there is a question about the conflicts created for judges during judicial election campaigns.  Justice Orie Melvin is charging that Judge Charles A. Clement, Jr. of the Court of Judicial Discipline should recuse from deciding her case because during her 2009

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election campaign, he joined in a letter criticizing one of her campaign ads. Clement stated at the recent hearing that he believes he can be fair and impartial.

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The question we really should be asking is why we persist in choosing our judges in such a way that creates multiple opportunities for conflicts of interest and appearances (and sometimes actual) biases.  It doesn’t make sense and it’s time to find a better way.

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Jul 31 2012

Justice Joan Orie Melvin’s Preliminary Hearing

Published by under Merit Selection

State Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin’s preliminary hearing before District Judge James Hanley in Pittsburgh Municipal Court started yesterday.  A preliminary hearing is an initial hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence to proceed to trial.

Justice Orie Melvin’s case highlights a main problem with judicial elections.  She is charged with using her government staff and resources for political purposes during her campaigns for the Supreme Court.

According to an article in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, three former staffers testified that “they were expected to perform campaign work” during Melvin’s 2003 campaign for state Supreme Court , three former staffers testified that “they were expected to perform campaign work” during Melvin’s 2003 campaign for state Supreme Court Electronic Cigarette.  Campaign electronic cigarette comparison work included distributing literature at polling places, filling out questionnaires for interest groups and newspapers, and fielding election phone calls.  One testified to being asked to forge expense vouchers in order to pay poll workers.

The three witnesses were Lisa Sasinowski, Melvin’s chief

law clerk, Molly Creenan, Melvin’s staff attorney, and Kathy Squires, Melvin’s secretary.  Sharon Cochran, an employee of former Sen. Jane Orie, also testified yesterday.  Justice Joan Orie Melvin’s preliminary hearing continues today.

For more information, see the articles in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review and the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.

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May 01 2012

A Recipe for Trouble

Published by under News

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports that some candidates for the 2013 judicial elections in Allegheny County have announced their candidacies on Facebook. Well, of course they have. Facebook is free, easy to use, and a great way to get a message

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out.  But, at least one candidate — an assistant district attorney — has taken down his page in light of questions about the propriety of using Facebook at this early stage.

The Canons of Judicial Conduct limit when judicial campaigns can raise money, but there are not clear rules about “announcing one’s candidacy.”  As PMC’s Shira Goodman explained, however, “People would see this person is running for judge and the person might say, ‘Maybe I should give them money,’ ” Goodman said.  In short, beginning a campaign this early and this way can have unintended consequences.

But the real problem is not Facebook; it’s that we choose judges through a system that makes them campaign and raise funds.  Electing judges is the real recipe for trouble.

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Jan 13 2012

PMC in the News

Published by under Guest Post,Judges,News

There has been extensive news coverage of the revelation that Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin is the target of an on-going grand jury investigation about the use of government staff for election activities.  In the wake of those revelations, PMC called on the Justice to temporarily step aside from her judicial duties; PMC also urged the state Supreme Court to temporarily suspend Justice Orie Melvin if she failed to voluntarily step aside. PMC has been cited in numerous articles throughout the Commonwealth and by local radio stations.

Deputy Director Shira Goodman was quoted in The Legal Intelligencer regarding the target letter Justice Melvin received from the grand jury: “That was kind of the line for us. . . [The target letter] moved this from the realm of ‘this is kind of a sticky situation’ to ‘this is really much more serious and could undermine her ability to serve.’” Both the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Post-Gazette quoted PMC Executive Director Lynn Marks who stated that: “All citizens, including judges are presumed innocent until proven guilty, but judges and especially supreme court justices should not be permitted to judge others while under the cloud of such a serious investigation.”

Philadelphia Public Radio WHYY News Works also quoted Goodman in regards to Justice Melvin’s recusal from hearing cases involving the Allegheny County prosecutor who argued the previous criminal cases against her sisters: “We don’t think it’s enough. . . I think she would still be weighing in on very important questions that affect all Pennsylvanians from family matters to business questions to possibly the redistricting case and we don’t need a cloud. We don’t need questions about whether a judge. . . legitimately should be there or not.”

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On Thursday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette echoed PMC’s call for Justice Melvin to take a leave of absence or face suspension:

Justice Melvin simply cannot go on as if this is business as usual. While her own presumption of innocence has not changed, her continuing presence on the high court does no service to the people of Pennsylvania or the venerable institution whose reputation she is supposed to uphold. Justice Melvin has already conceded half the point by recusing herself from cases involving the Allegheny County district attorney’s office. She must go further and take a leave of absence until this black cloud is cleared. If she won’t go voluntarily while the grand jury tries to connect the all-too-prominent dots of this case, Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille should use his power to convene a four-member majority of the court to suspend her.

Harrisburg Public Radio WITF also spoke to Goodman who outlined the problems with the judicial selection process in Pennsylvania: “We have a system that treats judges like politicians. They have to get party endorsements, they have to raise money, they have to curry favor with special interest groups to be able to run and succeed in a 67 county state.”  Goodman went on to explain that the grand jury investigation demonstrates why elections are not the right way to choose our appellate judges.

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Jan 10 2012

PMC: Orie Melvin Case Demands Swift Action and Long Term Reform

Published by under News

Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts today called for swift action following the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review‘s report that Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie viagra 100mg price Melvin is the target of a grand jury investigation focused on the improper use of judicial and legislative staff for her election campaigns. PMC has called for Justice Orie Melvin to temporarily step down or face suspension by the Supreme Court.  AS PMC Executive Director Lynn A. Marks explained, “All citizens, including judges are presumed innocent until proven guilty, but judges and especially Supreme Court justices should not be permitted to judge others while under the cloud of such a serious investigation.”

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PMC also called on the Legislature to amend the state constitution to end election of appellate judges in Pennsylvania.  As PMC Deputy Director Shira J. Goodman explained:

 Judicial elections require candidates to campaign, politick, and fundraise, eliminating the distinction between them and politicians. Judicial elections are designed to pick the best campaigners and fundraisers. We need a system that is designed to get the most qualified, fair and impartial judges on the bench. . . . PMC calls on the legislature to. . .  give the people of Pennsylvania the opportunity to decide whether there is a better way to select appellate judges.

 

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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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Dec 06 2010

Take Another Look at those Cars

Published by under Judges,Opinion

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review this weekend published a letter to the editor from PMC. This letter came as a response to an article about the tax-payer paid leases for luxury vehicles driven by judges. Recognizing that appellate judges travel for court business, the letter explains that the practice is extravagant and should be reevaluated. The letter also points out the effect the policy has on public opinion of the courts: “It just doesn’t look right for public servants to be enjoying such a benefit, especially when the court system is working to do more with less…”

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Any appearance of bias or impropriety on the part of judges damages the court system as a whole. Public confidence in the courts is vital to a working system, and any policies that undermine that confidence should be reevaluated.

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Nov 24 2010

Newspapers Call for a Gift Ban

Published by under Judges,Opinion

Editorials in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Patriot-News, and Philadelphia Inquirer criticize Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille for accepting expensive gifts and call for a change to the court’s rules. Under the current rules, created by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, trial and appellate judges may accept gifts as long as gifts valued over $250 are publicly disclosed.

All three editorials explain that the acceptance of such gifts undermines the public’s faith in an impartial judiciary. In addition, they point out that this Supreme Court supported a gift ban for 15,000 state court employees and magisterial district judges. The ban came as a part of broad new ethics rules that Chief Justice Castille described as: “fundamental to a good-faith relationship between the judiciary . . .  and the citizens.” The inequity of these different standards for different courts is clear, and disclosure of gifts does not prevent the appearance of impropriety.

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The Philadelphia Inquirer also correctly draws a comparison between the harm done to public opinion of the courts when judges accept gifts and that caused when judges fundraise and campaign in judicial elections. “Millions of dollars raised for judicial campaigns create the same perception that justice is for sale, most voters say.” The problem of judicial elections can be fixed by legislators and then voters in a referendum deciding to move to merit selection; the problem of court gifts can be solved by the Supreme Court changing the rules to ban all gifts. The public deserves to have confidence that the courts are fair and impartial, and that cannot occur while money from attorneys and businesses is ever-present in the system.

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Oct 27 2009

Let’s Talk About Money

All of a sudden, other people seem to be doing our work for us, that is alerting the public to the evils of money in judicial elections.  Supreme Court candidates are challenging each other about campaign contributions, and the media is all over the story.  (Check out this story on NPR’s WHYY and articles in the Pittsburgh Post-GazettePittsburgh Tribune-Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer/APCapitolwire (subscription required), and Allentown’s The Morning Call). So, let’s talk about money.

It’s a given that to run a statewide campaign for the appellate courts, you need money.  There are sixty-seven counties in Pennsylvania, and candidates try to reach most, if not all of them.  This requires travel, television ads, radio spots, lawn signs and a good staff.  That all costs money.  Where’s the money coming from? Generally, the big givers to judicial campaigns are those who frequently litigate in the state court system: lawyers, law firms, organized groups of lawyers or bar associations, unions, and businesses.

The trouble is, these folks and entities will later appear before the judges their money helped to elect.  Who finds this troubling?  The public does — the regular folks who sometimes find themselves in court and who don’t give to judicial campaigns.  These folks are sitting in courtrooms worried that their opponents or their opponents’ lawyers have contributed to the judge’s election campaign.  This should be the last thing people in court have to worry about.  But when you elect judges, this is part of the package.

The abiding image for our courts is the statue of Justice blindfolded, signifying that judges are not swayed by personal bias, popular opinion, political expediency, or the identity of the parties.  Electing judges undermines that image.  Instead, the public imagines a judge with eyes wide open, pockets bulging with campaign cash, and knowledge of where the cash came from.

The candidates for Supreme Court are not helping to repair this image. They are fighting about who received more money from which donors. Judge Orie Melvin charges that Judge Panella received more than  $1,000,000 from the Committee for a Better Tomorrow, the political action committee of the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers.  Judge Panella retorts that Judge Orie Melvin accepted $125,000 from the same PAC and has received large donations from Republican PACs as well.

One million dollars is a lot of money, but $125,000 is nothing to sneeze at, as my nine year old son has pointed out.  Anyone coming in to court opposing someone who contributed to this PAC might justifiably be concerned about either Judge Panella or Judge Orie Melvin.  It’s not the size of the donation, it’s the fact of the donation.

The candidates’ dispute acknowledges that campaign money creates unfavorable perceptions and leads the public to believe justice is for sale.  Their debate about money is not helping to ease the public’s mind, but rather is confirming fears that campaign cash does indeed matter long after the election is over and the judge is sitting in the courtroom.

Enough is enough. It’s time to get judges out of the fundraising business and to put the blindfold back on.  Merit Selection is the answer.

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Oct 02 2009

We Should be Worried about Sleepy Elections

Published by under Judges,News

An article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review offers a gloomy assessment about the upcoming judicial elections in Westmoreland County where voters are electing two new judges:

Look who’s talking about the upcoming election for two Westmoreland County judgeships.

Apparently nobody.

The disturbing evidence to support this conclusion: a scheduled candidate forum was canceled when two of the three candidates “said they weren’t interested.”  Why the lack of interest? They participated in a forum in advance of the primaries and it was recorded, so they claim it’s not necessary to do it again.  One candidate explained, “‘In a judicial campaign there are only so many questions you can ask.’”  Really, because it seems to us there’s a lot of things people might want to know about those who seek to become their judges.

Perhaps more troubling: another candidate claimed there was little public interest in having a candidate forum.  Choosing judges is a big responsibility; voters generally claim they want more information, not less.

Well, this is all very discouraging.  Two of three candidates and the “public” have determined it’s not necessary for voters to educate themselves in advance of the election.  Sleepy elections aren’t good for anyone, and they certainly don’t help voters make good decisions in the voting booth.  Maybe elections aren’t the right way to go about choosing judges.

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