Apr 09 2010

2009 PA Supreme Court Campaign the Subject of Grand Jury Investigations

Published by under Judges,News

In Allegheny County this week, a grand jury returned a presentment against Senator Jane Orie and her sister Janine Orie, a member of Justice Joan Orie Melvin’s staff, for violations of laws regarding political activity by state employees on taxpayer-funded time.

At issue is an allegedly almost decade-long use of Senator Orie’s legislative staff for political work related to the Senator’s own political campaigns as well as those of her sister, Justice Orie Melvin.  Particular focus has been paid to the alleged use of the legislative staffers  for Justice Orie Melvin’s 2009 successful campaign for the Supreme Court.

Senator Orie and Janine Orie were arraigned on Wednesday of this week.  Now the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review is reporting that a second grand jury is being convened to continue the investigation.  Jack Orie, brother and lawyer to Jane and Janine Orie, believes this new grand jury may be targeting sister Justice Orie Melvin.

There are allegations that the entire investigation is politically motivated.  The District Attorney pursuing the investigation, Stephen A. Zappala, Jr., is the son of former Chief Justice Stephen Zappala.  The Ories contend that  Zappala is targeting Senator Orie because of her opposition to legalized gaming, an industry to which Zappala’s father and sister are tied.

The investigation brings a cloud over two branches of government.   And the allegations  about the judicial campaigns highlight the dangers in using an inherently political process — elections — to select officials who are supposed to be different from those who serve in the political branches.  We don’t want our judges or judicial candidates put in the position of having to make tough calls about the ethical rules governing their campaign conduct and that of their employees.

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Nov 13 2009

Voter education is not enough stop the impact of money on elected judges

The Harrisburg Patriot-Times, which recently ran our opinion piece in support of merit selection, published a letter yesterday in which the author questioned whether merit selection of judges is any better than electing them. While we thank the author for mentioning the work we do to educate voters, we feel obliged to make clear that there is a big difference between the two methods of judicial selection.

The author reasons that because, from his experience, retention elections produce very low voter turnout whether the judge was initially elected or appointed, the public must be equally satisfied with judges in both systems, because:

In Pennsylvania and in Colorado, where I had once resided, retention elections have notoriously poor turnout. Judges routinely win retention on voter turnout of only 17 to 25 percent of registered voters. The conclusion I draw from this is that electing judges for their first term is no better or worse than merit-selection.”

We must respectfully disagree with this broad conclusion. The problem with electing judges is not merely the risk of getting less qualified candidates. The biggest problem with electing judges is that even if an election were to produce the exact same judges as would merit selection, elections beget campaigns, campaigns beget expenses, and expenses beget donations.  Once money is injected into the mix, there is a perception that those who support the candidate will have more influence before the court than will others.

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Our recent Supreme Court race is a telling example of this. Both candidates, Joan Orie Melvin and Jack Panella, were rated as highly recommended by the PA Bar Association. According to experts and editorial boards, either candidate could have served competently, and either could have been chosen through a merit selection process. And under either system, the winner could be removed from the court in a retention election if he or she were to fail to live up to the standards of the electorate.

So far so good. But in Pennsylvania, instead of vetting the candidates before a non-partisan group, the candidates were forced to raise gobs of money from the very groups likely to appear before them. In fact, the candidates accused each other of being influenced by the money each had received, as we pointed out in our piece in the Patriot-News.

Can the public help but question the impartiality of a court under these conditions? Can we really have faith that politics will play no part in challenges to the upcoming reapportionment of state legislative districts that go before the court when the political parties spend so much money getting candidates elected?

The influence of money, real or perceived, is something that even the most ardent voter-education campaigns can’t overcome. While we strongly believe in voter education, and are often frustrated at the dearth of media coverage of judicial elections, only merit selection can truly take money out of the mix.

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Nov 02 2009

Money, Money, Money, Money

This is the opening for Sunday’s op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by Lynn Marks and Shira Goodman of PMC:

The O’Jays famously sang, “Money, money, money, money. Some people got to have it. Hey, hey, hey. Some people really need it.” This is certainly true of statewide judicial candidates in Pennsylvania.

Marks and Goodman explain that to run a state-wide campaign requires a lot of money, and the money usually comes from lawyers, lawfirms, unions and businesses that frequently litigate in the state appellate court system. “They give because they care about who runs the courts in which they pursue their interests.” The op-ed goes on to explain why this seemingly logical scenario creates problems: it creates a perception that campaign contributions affect decision-making in the courtroom.

The abiding symbol of our courts is the statue of Justice blindfolded, signifying that judges should not be swayed by personal bias, popular opinion, political expediency or the identity of the parties appearing before them. A judge’s personal relationships and political connections should have no influence on how cases are decided. Electing judges undermines this image. The public perceives a judge with eyes wide open, pockets bulging with campaign cash and knowledge of where the cash came from.

Even though the vast majority of judges are sincere when they explain that campaign contributions don’t affect how they decide cases, the public understandably has trouble believing this. It looks like justice is for sale to the biggest campaign contributors.

Marks and Goodman then explain that the current Supreme Court race — with the candidates running an ad war and fighting about who took contributions from what entity — is only confirming for the public the poisonous influence of money in the judicial selection system.  There is only one answer: “Enough is enough. It’s time to get judges out of the fund-raising business and to put the blindfold back on. The way to achieve this is to stop electing appellate court judges.”

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Oct 29 2009

Paper Refuses to Make Judicial Endorsements — Backs Merit Selection Instead

An editorial in the Times-Tribune (Scranton) makes the case for replacing judicial elections with Merit Selection for the appellate courts.  Exhibit A is the current partisan — and in the last few days nasty — race between Republican Joan Orie Melvin and Democrat Jack Panella for the vacancy on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court:

Judge Orie Melvin lamented during a recent debate that Judge Panella is heavily backed by trial lawyers, who have donated about [$1 million] to his campaign. But she has received about [$125,000} from trial lawyers, so the offense apparently is one of degree rather than commission.

That points to one of the key problems with appellate judicial elections: they are funded primarily by people who are likely to appear in court before the winning candidate, or who have frequent business before the appellate courts. . . .

There would be no large donors if judges were appointed based on qualifications.

The editorial goes on to talk about how the electoral process overly politicizes judges who are supposed to be above politics.  Focusing on the upcoming legislative redistricting and the political parties’ emphasis on the importance of the Supreme Court election (see, e.g., Karl Rove ‘s piece in today’s Wall Street Journal) and the ultimate numbers of Republicans and Democrats on the Supreme Court, the editorial argues: “That shouldn’t matter, but in Harrisburg it’s all that matters.”

Finally, the editorial reminds us that voters often lack relevant information about the candidates, therefore leading to random and irrelevant factors such as ballot position, county of residence, gender, name recognition, and political party influencing who reaches the bench.

The Times-Tribune closes with this impressive claim: “Because we favor merit selection, The Times-Tribune does not endorse appellate judicial candidates.” We appreciate the support for Merit Selection and thank the editorial board for clearly demonstrating why this current election makes the case for reform.

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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 20 2009

Partisan Mudslinging Reaches PA Judicial Campaign

Published by under Judges,News

Everyone knows how dirty election advertising can be. Negative campaign ads are easy to spot – with the clichéd black and white low-angle images of the opposing candidate, dramatic fade-ins of damning headlines, and music that would make Alfred Hitchcock proud. Mudslinging and negative campaigning is used at all levels of politics and by both major parties, but during last year’s presidential campaign, some attacks took on a particular quality and picked up lots of media coverage, as opponents of the then-candidate Obama threw out terms like “friends of terrorist,” “socialist,” and beyond.

On Friday, Capitol Ideas with John L. Micek reported about a banner ad that ran on the website GrassrootsPA. The banner read, “Tired of Barack Obama, Ed Rendell, Alren Specter and big government Democrats ruining our nation?” The background was Soviet-red, the names Soviet-yellow. The “O” in “Obama” contained a Soviet hammer and sickle.

Banner Ad

Banner Ad as seen on the website Grassroots PA.

NOTE: JudgesOnMerit, PMC, and PMCAction are non-partisan and our cause is a non-partisan one. We do not support any judicial candidates or political parties, and we are equally critical of all problems with the judicial selection process.

After a few seconds, the ad flashed to a blue background and read, “Hit them where it hurts. The voting booth! On Nov. 3rd, Vote for Supreme Court candidate Joan Orie Melvin and your Republican judicial ticket.” The ad was paid for by the Republican Party of Pennsylvania. It is unclear whether Judge Orie Melvin had any knowledge of the banner before it was run. [Note - the ad seems to have been taken down. The current ad running on the site uses the same color scheme, but does not have names and lost the hammer and sickle].

This seemingly marks the first time a state’s Republican Party has used Soviet imagery directly in an attack on Democrats. And it is almost unfathomable why they chose to do so in support of their judicial candidates. As we’ve predicted, nasty partisan campaigning with no relevance to helping choose judges has unfortunately found its way into Pennsylvania’s judicial race. Such attacks surely don’t belong in any forum designed to help the public choose a justice on the Supreme Court.

The Philadelphia Daily News’ Will Bunch expressed his reaction to the ad on his blog Attytood at Philly.com:

“[I]t’s hard to say what is more appalling — equating the sitting president of the United States with the Soviet dictators who slaughtered their political enemies and sent others to brutal gulags, or the cause this ad is promoting: The election of a judge to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.”

This sentiment reflects one of the critical flaws with Pennsylvania’s method of selecting judges and justices in partisan elections. As Gort42, another blogger covering the story said,

“The thing that we want in our Judges is to be impartial and not take political sides no matter what party they belong to.”

One can only speculate what logical connection the Republican Party of Pennsylvania was hoping to make between a belief that the Democratic leadership in Washington are akin to communists and a conclusion that Pennsylvanians should therefore vote Republicans onto the state benches.

We couldn’t put it any better than did commenter Drew on the Capitol Ideas blog:

“Is this type of naked partisanship really what we want from our judges and justices? We need to end elections for judges and implement merit selection.”

True communists may not like to hear us say it, but – Amen, Drew.

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Sep 23 2009

Wisconsin Takes a Hard Look at the Way it Chooses Judges

Published by under Judges,News,Opinion

Last week, we wrote about a case currently before a state court panel in Wisconsin involving Michael Gableman, a then-candidate for the state’s Supreme Court who ran an ad against his incumbent opponent. The ad was quite misleading (at best).

According to the National Law Journal, that case may be ultimately headed for the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2007, Washington State’s Supreme Court struck down a state law that prohibited false political ads about opponents as violating the First Amendment protection free speech.  If the Wisconsin Supremes now rule against Gableman’s advertisement, a conflict between the states on an interpretation of the federal constitution will give rise to a basis for Supreme Court review.

Thomas Basting, president of the State Bar of Wisconsin during the election, said the bar’s judicial integrity campaign committee also was “highly critical” of the ad.

“I think the law is eventually going to say that, when you have a judicial election, it’s just the same as any partisan election,” Basting said.

Whichever way Wisconsin rules, the very fact that judicial candidates are mixed up in these types of questions – how low can you go when running for office and stay within your First Amendment rights – highlights the inherent flaw with judicial elections.  Bastings continued in the NLJ article:

“That’s why many of us in Wisconsin, including me, have come to the conclusion we need to take a hard look at the way we choose our judges.”

What will it take to convince Pennsylvanians to take a similar hard look?

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Mar 04 2009

Gavel Grab Runs Down the Caperton Argument

Our friends at Gavel Grab offer a complete analysis of the Caperton v. Massey argument, including commentary from PMC, the League of Women Voters and other amici.  Gavel Grab quotes PMC Associate Director Shira Goodman:

“Pennsylvania, which elects all judges in partisan elections, has seen first hand the steadily increasing influence of money in judicial elections. Coupled with that has been the decreasing public confidence in the impartiality of our courts. The more money that comes in, the less confidence the people have. The scales of justice need to be rebalanced. A strong decision by the Supreme Court requiring recusal in at least some cases will help to do that.”

Also posted on Gavel Grab is an email Justice At Stake sent to its Partners (including PMC) about the case, concluding with this encouragement:

We now must wait until the Supreme Court rules, but the last few months already represent an extraordinary victory in educating the public on threats to our courts, and in commanding media attention on the critical issue of protecting impartial courts from special-interest money.

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Mar 03 2009

Associated Press Reviews the Caperton Argument

Published by under Judges,News

The Associated Press offers a useful account of this morning’s oral argument in Caperton v. Massey. Although it’s always hard to tell how a case will be decided based on the oral argument, the A.P. offers a glimpse inside the courtroom:

The Supreme Court appears to be willing to say that elected judges must step aside from cases in which there would be at least an appearance of bias if they took part.

During lively arguments Tuesday in a closely watched case from West Virginia, the court’s four liberal justices and the conservative-leaning Anthony Kennedy all expressed support for a ruling that the Constitution’s guarantee of a fair trial could require judges not to participate in a case in which there was a likelihood of bias.

Honing in on the real problem created by a system in which judicial candidates raise funds from potential future litigants and lawyers, Justice Kennedy noted:  “Our whole system is designed to ensure confidence in judges.”  As PMC has argued — and as recent polls continue to confirm — the current system is undermining that confidence.

We will post links to the argument transcripts and additional news accounts as they become available. And we will keep you up to date on developments in this very important case.

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Dec 15 2008

Looking Ahead to the 2009 Judicial Elections

2009 is a judicial election year in Pennsylvania.  It will be a busy one here, as Pennsylvanians will be electing a Supreme Court Justice, three Superior Court judges, two Commonwealth Court judges, and many more trial level judges.

We’ll be watching and keeping track of the money, and waiting to see if the United States Supreme Court changes the rules of the game  as it considers and decides Caperton v. Massey. We’re anticipating that 2009 will break the fundraising records set in 2007, when four candidates for the Supreme Court raised almost eight million dollars.

As this all proceeds, we will continue to work to bring Merit Selection to the appellate courts, and hope that some time in the near future there will be an election that gives the people of Pennsylvania the chance to vote on whether to change the way we choose our appellate court judges.

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