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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Jun 28 2012

The Real Reasons Pennsylvanians Want to Find a New Way to Select Judges

Published by under Opinion

In a letter published in the Harrisburg Patriot-News, PMC’s Lynn  A. Marks points out the problems in Dan Pero’s recent op-ed about Merit Selection.  Pero focused on the fact that even Merit Selection systems cannot totally eliminate politics from judicial selection. While conceding this point, Marks pointed out the big issues that Pero ignores and the real reasons Pennsylvanians want to find a new way to select judges:

Seventy-six percent of surveyed Pennsylvanians believe that campaign contributions affect judicial decision-making. In other words, the public believes justice is for sale. The same survey found that 73 percent believe that the most qualified candidates do not win judicial elections. This is the release of hgh at orgasem not HGH surprising. Elections are designed to reward the best campaigners and fundraisers, not the most qualified candidates.

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Marks further notes that by tabling the Merit Selection legislation, the House Judiciary Committee essentially voted against allowing the people of Pennsylvania to decide whether to change how we select appellate judges.  93% of surveyed Pennsylvanians want the opportunity to decide. Pero thinks the

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legislature serves the voters by tabling legislation and keeping the issue bottled in committee.  We disagree and  believe the legislature can show voters it trusts them by giving them the opportunity to decide for themselves whether there is a better way to choose judges.

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Jun 05 2012

We Trust the Voters

Published by under Merit Selection News

PMC and PMCAction are disappointed to report that the House Judiciary Committee today tabled Merit Selection (H.B. 1815) on a 13-12 vote.  Instead of moving forward a bill that would give Pennsylvanians the opportunity to decide for themselves whether there is a better way to choose appellate judges, the Committee responded to pressure by special interest groups that would prefer not to let the people decide

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this issue.   Such groups clearly believe their best prospects lie in electing judges that agree with them and fear the results of a system that takes judges out of the campaign and fundraising businesses.

A 2010 pollof Pennsylvania voters revealed that 93% want the chance to vote on whether to adopt Merit Selection.  (A summary of the poll is available).  A positive vote in Committee would have moved us one step closer to letting the people vote.

It has been more than forty years since the public voted on this issue. Much has changed since then:  elections have become incredibly expensive, special interests (including some out-of-state organizations) are funding judicial campaigns, and a sitting Supreme Court justice has been indicted for alleged improper campaign activity.

It is past time for the people to be heard.  We will continue to work to bring this issue to the people so they can decide whether there is a better way.  We trust the voters to make this decision; it is unfortunate that others do not.

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Jun 05 2012

Let the People Decide

Published by under Opinion

In an op-ed in the Harrisburg Patriot-News, PMC today calls for the state legislature to begin the process of giving the people of Pennsylvania the opportunity to decide whether there is a better way to select appellate court judges. The editorial notes the recent scandals that have rocked our state courts, including the indictment of a sitting Supreme Court justice for illegal campaign practices, and highlights the growing dissatisfaction with judicial elections:

A 2010 public opinion survey of Pennsylvania voters reflected deep distrust of the judicial election system: 76 percent believe that campaign contributions influence judges’ decisions; only 21 percent believe the most qualified candidates win judicial elections.

These staggering numbers reflect a lack of faith that elections produce qualified, fair and impartial judges. Research demonstrates widespread belief that “justice is for sale” to campaign contributors with deep pockets.

The editorial

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points out that:

It has been more than 40 years since the public had the chance to weigh in on how to choose our judges. In the 2010 statewide poll, 93 percent responded that Pennsylvanians should have the right to vote on this issue.

Pennsylvanians should not have to accept a system they believe is broken. It is time to give voters the opportunity to decide whether there is a better way to choose appellate court judges. Our legislators should give the public that opportunity. 

Today, the House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote on H.B. 1815, which would amend the constitution to change from electing appellate judges to using a Merit Selection system.  A positive vote will send the bill to the House Floor. But this is only the first step in a lengthy process.  Amending the constitution takes much time and deliberation — two successive legislatures must pass identical legislation.  If that happens, the people must vote in a referendum to amend the constitution.  As PMC points out in the editorial, “our constitution can change only if the people of Pennsylvania vote to change it.”

We believe it is time for Pennsylvanians to have that opportunity.  We hope the legislature will give it to them.

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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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Apr 16 2012

Pennsylvanians Deserve the Facts

Published by under Our Perspective

The Sunday Currents Section of the Philadelphia Inquirer

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features a letter to the editor (scroll to the bottom) from PMC. The letter responds to last week’s op-ed by Professor Chris Bonneau, which purported to be a critique of Merit Selection but which really only raised questions about retention elections.

PMC pointed out that Merit Selection brings about real results that are desired by the people: “it is beyond dispute that merit selection, by eliminating the need for judicial candidates to raise funds from litigants and lawyers who may come before them, stops the flow of campaign money from those who may later be in the courtroom to the future judges who will decide their cases.”  PMC further explained that the retention elections Prof. Bonneau criticizes are part of Pennsylvania’s current elective system: all Common Pleas and Appellate Court judges are elected for ten year terms and then may stand for retention in uncontested, nonpartisan elections every ten years thereafter until they reach the age of mandatory retirement.

The key point PMC makes is this: “Pennsylvanians. . . deserve the facts about elections and merit selection,” and they deserve the opportunity to vote in a referendum election about whether to change the constitution to implement Merit Selection for the appellate courts. PMC wants the legislature to let the people decide this question, and we want the people to have good information and facts on which to base this decision.

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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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Mar 05 2012

Philadelphia Papers Call for Merit Selection

Published by under Opinion

In the wake of Thursday’s House Judiciary Committee hearings on Merit Selection for the appellate courts, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News have each published editorials calling for Merit Selection.

Following a recap of the hearing and a brief discourse on local


and state-wide judges whose conduct has been the subject of news reports and disciplinary action, the Daily News concludes:

Fixing this broken system will take time, since it would require legislation and a constitutional amendment, which itself requires a referendum.

Still, this has been an idea already debated for years. How many poster children for tainted justice do we need before we get action? That action can start with letting your state lawmaker know it’s time to get campaign money out of the courts.

The Inquirer opines that the proposed legislation would address the “twin problems with the state’s system of electing all of its judges: the corrupting influence of campaigns and fund-raising, and whether voters are adequately equipped to choose qualified candidates for the bench.”

As PMC and PMCAction pointed out during the hearing, passing the legislation will not change the way we select judges. Instead, it puts the issue to the people: changing the constitution requires a public referendum. The legislature can give the people this opportunity by passing the legislation in two successive sessions. We believe it’s time to let the people decide whether there is a better way to select our appellate court judges.

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Feb 28 2012

Merit Selection Hearing on Thursday March 1

Published by under Merit Selection News

A Public Hearing on Merit Selection  (HB 1815 and 1816) will be held by the PA House

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Judiciary Committee on Thursday, March 1st from 1:30-3:30 pm, at the National Constitution Center, Kirby Auditorium, 525 Arch Street, Philadelphia.  We know from public polling that Pennsylvanians want the chance to weigh in on the question of how we choose our appellate judges.  This hearing is a critical step in the process that can culminate in the people of Pennsylvania having the opportunity to vote on whether to change how we choose appellate court judges.

Among those expected to attend are:

  • Rep. Ron Marsico (R-Lower Paxton), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee
  • Rep. Bryan Cutler (R-Peach Bottom)
  • Eric A. Tilles, Esq., president of the DELVACCA chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel
  • Kathleen D. Wilkinson, chancellor-elect of the Philadelphia Bar Association
  • Representatives from Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts and PMCAction
  • K.O. Myers, Director of Research and Programs for the American Judicature Society
  • Bishop Mary Floyd Palmer, Pastor, Philadelphia Council of Clergy
  • Matthew Berg, Director of State Affairs for Justice at Stake
  • Charlotte Glauser, Judicial Specialist with the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania
  • The Honorable Phyllis W. Beck, retired judge
  • Walter M. Phillips, Jr., Esquire
  • David N. Taylor, Executive Director, Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association
  • Michael Walker, the Urban League
  • Randy Lee, Professor of Law, Widener Law School

Please consider attending. If anyone would like to submit written comments, please contact Michael Fink as soon as possible at mfink@pahousegop.com.  Comments will be accepted until the morning of February 29th and copies will be distributed at the hearing and made part of the record.

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Jan 18 2012

Philadelphia Inquirer Calls for Merit Selection

Published by under Opinion

In an editorial today, the Philadelphia Inquirer urges the legislature to act on pending Merit Selection legislation.  Although the paper has supported Merit Selection for a long time, the impetus for the call today was the pending investigation of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin for improper use of her judicial staff for her judicial election campaigns.  The editorial first echoes PMC’s calls for Justice Orie Melvin to temporarily step down from her duties on the Court.   The editorial then explains:

The allegations alone ought to be enough to shake the public’s faith in the state’s system of electing its most powerful judges.

No matter what the outcome of the inquiry into the Orie sisters, the state judiciary would not have to weather such controversy if its top judges were chosen through a merit-based system of appointment, with voters’ concurrence through nonpartisan retention elections. . . .

With the Melvin controversy bringing renewed attention to Pennsylvania’s discredited system of electing judges, Harrisburg officials should seize the

moment and move ahead on judicial reform.

We agree, and we hope the people of Pennsylvania will be given the chance to decide for themselves whether there is a better way to select appellate court judges.

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