May 01 2012

A Recipe for Trouble

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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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May 18 2011

Post-Election Musings

So, it’s the morning after.  As expected, very low voter turnout yesterday.  In the appellate court races, the Republican endorsed candidates won handily.  The Democrat for Superior Court was running unopposed. But the Democratic contest for Commonwealth Court is not yet determined, and it’ s possible that the unendorsed candidate who received a “not recommended” rating from the Pennsylvania Bar Association could be on the ballot in November.

In Philadelphia, ballot position and party endorsement were important factors in determining who won the very crowded races for Common Pleas Court.

So, what’s all this mean? That elections still aren’t designed to get the most qualified, fair and impartial judges on the bench.  Instead, elections generally reward luck (ballot position), political connections (party endorsement), and fundraising prowess.  Why should Pennsylvania be relying on such a system to pick officials whose job is to be fair, impartial, unbiased judges accountable to the law?

PMC representatives spent election day encouraging Pennsylvanians to vote while also pointing out the problems inherent in electing judges.  PMC’s Executive Director Lynn A. Marks spoke on PCN’s Call-In Show about how judges are different from other public officials and should therefore be selected in a different way.  Deputy Director Shira Goodman spoke about the issue and why electing judges doesn’t make sense on WHYY and WILK FM.

In addition, our letter in the Times-Leader argues: “The best way to solve the “money problem” is to get judges out of the fundraising business by ending the practice of electing judges.”

Our comments about the elections and how random factors have too great a role in deciding who gets on the bench can be found in the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News.  Most telling is an interview with Marks following her own trip to the voting booth:

‘I voted this morning. . . .I’m a politically active lawyer, and I didn’t know most of the people running. . . .’

‘It’s a crazy system to have people running very political campaigns for a job that’s supposed to be non-political and non-partisan.’

So, here at JudgesOnMerit, we’re doing our “Monday Morning Quarterbacking” and once again asking why we continue to elect judges this way.  We think it’s time for Pennsylvanians to get the opportunity to decide whether there is a better way to pick judges. We hope they will get that chance.

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Feb 25 2011

Judges Work for the People

In an op-ed in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, PMC’s Lynn Marks and Shira Goodman argue that in the wake of the Luzerne County scandal, there remains a fundamental question for Pennsylvania to answer:

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What does it mean to be a judge?The answer should be simple: A judge is a public servant sworn to render judgment in legal cases without regard to self-interest, personal bias, public opinion, or political pressure.

Lately, this fundamental proposition has been overshadowed. But we must demand that it be followed by all Pennsylvania justices and judges, and any judicial behavior falling short of it must not be tolerated.

Marks and Goodman argue that distinctions between what is criminal and what is unethical hold little meaning when it comes to judges, because unethical judicial behavior has the potential to be as harmful as criminal behavior.  They further explain that something has been missing in the aftermath of the scandal, something that may seem obvious, but that needs saying:

There should be an unequivocal official statement that what the former judges did was an example of judicial misconduct of the highest order. It should be made clear to all Pennsylvanians that these men violated almost every rule governing the behavior of the state’s judges.

The authors follow this with a list of ethical constraints on judicial behavior in an effort to restate some basic truths about what Pennsylvanians should be able to expect of their judges.  The op-ed closes with a strong statement about the judicial role:

At its core, kids-for-cash was about judges ignoring who they worked for: the people. These judges abused the power with which the public entrusted them, using it to enrich themselves and their friends.

This is the polar opposite of what it means to be a judge. It must never be allowed to happen again.

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Feb 18 2011

Take Back Our Courthouses

Published by under Judges,Resources

PMC issued the following press release following the announcement of the jury’s verdict in the federal corruption trial of former Luzerne County judge Mark Ciavarella:

Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts (PMC), reacting to the federal jury’s verdict in the trial of former Luzerne County judge Mark Ciavarella, urged the public to “Take back our courthouses.”
Executive Director Lynn A. Marks explained that “Courthouses belong to the people. Judges, court staff, and attorneys are there to serve the system, not to manipulate it for personal gain.” Tragically, this fundamental proposition was completely turned upside down in Luzerne County.

Deputy Director Shira Goodman explained that the public must now act to ensure that the lessons from the Luzerne County scandal will resonate across the Commonwealth. “It reminds us all of our own responsibility for our institutions of government and teaches that when something looks off, we must ask questions.”

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PMC encourages the people of Pennsylvania to continue to question how this scandal was allowed to be perpetrated, and how safeguards in the justice system failed to prevent, or at least catch the problems, before the rights of innumerable children and their families were violated. It is time to implement changes that will forestall such abuses of power in the future. PMC urges that “We, the public, must call on our leaders in the Governor’s office, the legislature and the Supreme Court to make sure this happens.”

Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts is a statewide, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working to promote the reform of Pennsylvania’s judicial system.

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Feb 09 2011

PMC’s Shira Goodman on WILK Radio

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Shira Goodman, Deputy Director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, will make an appearance on WILK Newsradio, 103.1 FM, at 4:05 EST this afternoon. She’ll discuss state policy about gifts to judges, and the corruption trial of former Luzerne County judge Mark Ciavarella, with host Steve Corbett.

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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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Nov 30 2010

The Role of Retention Elections

Yesterday the Legal Intelligencer published an editorial written by PMC about retention elections. Executive director Lynn Marks and deputy director Shira Goodman discuss the difficulties raised for retention elections by the ouster of three Iowa Supreme Court Justices, as well as the appropriate role for retention elections going forward. 

Despite the money and partisan campaigning that occurred in some retention elections this year, PMC remains confident that retention elections have an important function to serve. Ideally, retention elections should: “insulate sitting judges from the most dangerous elements of elections – the influence of campaign contributions, political party pressure and popular opinion. To combat the influence of special interest groups in retention elections, it is important for:

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good government groups, lawyers, bar associations and all those who care about fair and impartial courts to take responsibility for better public education about courts, judges, judicial independence and the role of retention elections.”

The editorial ends with a call for education, and emphasizes the importance of the public’s role in a merit selection system:

there must be systematic, ongoing public education so that there can be a real appreciation for the special role of courts and judges. We need public buy-in of the notion that we are all responsible for protecting fair, impartial, independent courts.

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Jan 29 2010

The Time is Now

PMC Deputy Director Shira Goodman attended this week’s Georgetown Law-Aspen Institute conference focused on selecting judges in the wake of the Caperton and Citizens United decisions. Goodman reports that there were two clear messages: First, judicial elections are about to become even more expensive, partisan and divisive. The second and more optimistic message is that now is the time for judicial selection reform.

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Justice O’Connor said the recent Supreme Court decisions should serve as a warning for states that elect judges and urged them to consider changing to Merit Selection. She explained that the Caperton decision demonstrated how contributions and campaign spending can poison the judicial system. In her view, Citizens United signaled that the problem of campaign spending in judicial elections could quickly be getting even worse.

This comes as no surprise, as we have long been concerned about the growing problem of mixing money with choosing judges. We hope that Justice O’Connor and others are correctly predicting that these recent decisions will serve as a wake-up call.

Pennsylvania needs to have a serious dialogue about how we choose appellate court judges. We hope that dialogue can proceed. If not, we will lose what Justice O’Connor has called the “one safe place” we have — fair and impartial courtrooms.

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Jan 22 2010

Local Responses to Citizens United Decision

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Yesterday the Supreme Court issued its long-awaited opinion in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, overturning two Court precedents and effectively striking down decades of law intended to keep corporate money from influencing elections. After yesterday’s ruling corporations and unions will be allowed to spend money from their treasuries to directly advocate for particular political candidates.

Here’s what the local papers had to say:

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the 5-4 decision proved a victory for the Court’s conservative bloc, who maintained that a ban on corporate spending violated the First Amendment right to free speech. Most democrats, including President Obama, condemned the decision. In his dissent, Justice Stevens warned that the ruling “threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions around the nation.”

In a separate article, the Inquirer focused on what the decision will mean for Pennsylvania. Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts’ Deputy Director Shira Goodman predicted that yesterday’s ruling will “open the floodgates to direct corporate and union spending in statewide judicial elections.”

The Post-Gazette noted that the decision likely will cause Pennsylvania to change its own laws to now permit private corporations to spend their own money on political campaigns. PMC warned of the negative implications the decision could have on judicial races, a point conspicuously absent from the Court’s majority opinion.

The Times Leader quoted Goodman as well, underscoring the worry that the additional influx of money could affect the impartiality of state judges: “Today’s decision will only intensify those concerns by making it easier for corporations and unions that frequently litigate in the state courts to participate in electing the judges who will decide their cases.”

For a media round-up

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Dec 21 2009

Merit Selection Ends the Money Game

In a letter to the Philadelphia Inquirer, PMC’s Shira Goodman argues that Merit Selection ends the money game that is so much a part of judicial elections.  Remember, much of the money that funds appellate court election campaigns comes from lawyers, law firms, businesses, unions and others with cases before the appellate courts.  In addition, the political parties often — like in this year’s Supreme Court race — spend big money to elect their favored candidates.

Merit selection eliminates all this spending and, most importantly, stops the flow of money from lawyers to the campaigns of judges likely to rule on their cases.

The letter also focused on the role of the public in a Merit Selection process, including: participation on the nominating commission; providing information about applicants for appellate court vacancies to the nominating commission, the Governor and the Senate during the application/evaluation, nomination and confirmation processes; and voting in retention elections to determine if judges should remain on the bench.

Critically, only the people of Pennsylvania can change the way we select appellate court judges:

Pennsylvania can change the way we select appellate judges, but only if the people vote to amend the constitution. It is time to let Pennsylvanians make this decision.

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