As Pennsylvania considers a proposal to dump its system for picking top judges in partisan elections and replace it with merit selection, “Pennsylvania is sort of in everybody’s sights,” says a former Colorado Supreme Court justice.
Former Justice Rebecca Love Kourlis is executive director of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, based in Denver. She told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that behind efforts to reform judicial selection methods lies eroding public trust in fair and impartial courts.
“It’s a function of the fact that the judiciary is now seen as political. Not so long ago, I think that most people believed that judges were not political actors, that they were trying to make decisions on the basis of the law and the facts,” Justice Kourlis said. Change came “because of some of the hot-button issues over the last couple of decades.”
Lynn Marks, head of the reform group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, told the newspaper, “We think Pennsylvanians deserve judges that are chosen based on their credentials, not because of political connections, or where they live, or how much money they raise … or where their name appears on the ballot.” Read more
At a 25th anniversary celebration for Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor urged a shift away from partisan judicial elections in the state.
“Judicial independence means that judges are free to decide cases on the basis of law and facts, rather than on the basis of campaign contributions,” Justice O’Connor said, according to a Law360 article. “If it’s not present, our confidence in the judiciary crumbles.”
“Moving away from partisan election of judges is tremendously important,” Justice O’Connor added in the keynote address. She described the success of Arizona, where she once served as a legislator and judge, in adopting a merit-based judicial selection system. “I wish all of you every success in your efforts to protect the integrity of your courts,” she said.
PMC, a Justice at Stake partner organization, has been pushing for Pennsylvania to end judicial elections (see Gavel Grab about recently introduced, bipartisan legislation) and adopt a merit selection system. Justice O’Connor recently joined Justice at Stake as its first honorary chair. Read more
Pennsylvania’s use of partisan elections to pick judges has come under criticism from another newspaper editorial board, this time the Elizabethtown Advocate. Its editorial cites “mudslinging” in a recent Superior Court election as evidence of need for a change.
The editorial cast a spotlight on a negative ad aired by the Republican campaign of Vic Stabile in the contest with Democratic candidate Judge Jack McVay Jr. The ad, which brought up allegations of nepotism in hiring, was criticized by the Pennsylvania Bar Association.
The editorial elaborated:
“This is only the latest example of why we should not have people running for judicial seats the same way they run for governor or mayor. It would make far more sense to emulate what other states Read more
A trial court judge ordered on Friday that the entire criminal sentencing of ex-Justice Joan Orie Melvin (photo) of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court be stayed, at least until a higher court reaches a decision on her appeal.
Last week, a three-judge panel of the state Superior Court agreed with a request by Orie Melvin’s lawyers and stayed a part of her sentencing that directed her to write apologies to former colleagues on photographs of her wearing handcuffs (see Gavel Grab).
On Friday, Allegheny County Common Pleas Court Judge Lester G. Nauhaus ordered the temporary lifting of her house arrest and probation, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“She’s not serving my sentence! And the problem I have with that is she’s banking credit for time served and I will not allow it!” Judge Nauhaus declared.
Orie Melvin was sentenced to three years in house arrest and a $55,000 fine. She was convicted by a jury of corruption in campaigns for the state’s highest court.
A LehighValleyLive.com editorial supports a proposal for choosing Pennsylvania appellate judges through merit selection. The editorial notes that interest in switching from competitive elections to a merit selection process in Pennsylvania has recently been renewed, in part due to a push from state lawmakers and a non-profit group, Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts. PMC is a JAS partner group.
Judicial appointments will not do away with political influence entirely, the editorial says, but it emphasizes the contrast with electing judges:
“…[E]very round of judicial elections seems to bear out the pitfalls of electing judges whom voters know almost nothing about, and whose campaigns are bankrolled by special interests (lawyers, unions, business groups, etc.) that do business before the state Commonwealth, Superior and Supreme courts.”
The editorial goes on to discuss criminal violations by former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, as well as a mention of New Jersey’s system for appointing judges. You can read about newly introduced legislation for merit selection of judges in Pennsylvania by clicking here for Gavel Grab.
Two Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices spent an estimated $317,500 on TV advertisements to help retain their seats when voters went to the polls this week, according to estimates released by the Brennan Center for Justice and Justice at Stake on Friday.
The spending came in what are generally considered low-key judicial races, where Chief Justice Ron Castille (left of two photos) and Justice Max Baer (right of two photos) successfully ran for another term in retention (up-or-down) elections, the groups said in a statement.
Chief Justice Castille spent an estimated $66,000 while Justice Baer spent an estimated $251,000. Before Election Day, the Independence Hall Tea Party PAC issued a press release urging Pennsylvanians to vote against retaining both justices, as a result of their not upholding the state’s Voter ID Law in a 2012 ruling. Pennsylvania group Rock the Capital also campaigned against Chief Justice Castille.
The Brennan Center is a Justice at Stake partner organization.
In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:
- A Los Angeles Times article reported on former California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald M. George’s reflections about his service on the court. George recalled his time spent working with colleagues and moments with former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He also discussed his experiences dealing with the state legislature; oftentimes he found that legislators could not put aside personal disagreements with the court to provide it with the funding it desperately needed.
- North Carolina has several important elections coming up including local judicial elections according to the Voter Update. North Carolina previously had a public financing system in place to help ensure fairness in judicial elections, but the legislature repealed the program this year. Voter Update comes from the North Carolina Center for Voter Education, a JAS partner organization.
- Philly.com, reporting on judicial elections this week, noted the defeat of Municipal Court Judge Kenneth Powell Jr., a Republican who had been appointed earlier. Voters who could weigh in on the judgeship are 6-1 Democrats vs. Republicans by registration. Lynn Marks of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a JAS partner group, Read more
Ex-Justice Joan Orie Melvin of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will not be required as part of her sentencing on public corruption counts to write apologies to former colleagues on photographs of her wearing handcuffs — at least for now.
A three-judge panel of the state Superior Court has agreed with a request by Orie Melvin’s lawyers to stay that portion of her sentencing pending the outcome of her direct appeal, according to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article.
“While the requirement that she write apology letters does not involve potentially incriminating testimony in a courtroom, it nevertheless creates evidence that could possibly be used against her in a later criminal proceeding,” Judge Christine L. Donohue wrote in the opinion.
Orie Melvin was sentenced to three years in house arrest and a $55,000 fine. She was convicted by a jury of corruption in campaigns for the state’s highest court. You can learn more about her challenge to the apology directive from Gavel Grab.
Two Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices were retained by voters on Election Day. Although unopposed, they raised a combined total of hundreds of thousands of dollars amidst uncertainty over a possible anti-incumbent vote following the recent U.S. government shutdown.
Chief Justice Ronald Castille received about a 69 percent favorable vote for another 10-year term, although he will be required to step down — due to mandatory age limits — in one year. Justice Max Baer captured a favorable retention vote of about 71 percent, according to the Morning Call. Earlier, it was reported by the Associated Press that Justice Baer’s campaign had raised more than $420,000 and Justice Castille’s, at least $179,000.
Superior Court Judges Jack Panella and Susan Peikes Gantman won retention votes of about 69 percent each. In the sole competitive statewide court race, which saw a negative TV ad broadcast in the final week, Harrisburg attorney Victor Stabile defeated Allegheny County Judge John McVay Jr. Read more
In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:
- Mississippi’s drug court is facing serious financial troubles according to the Hattiesburg American. Mississippi is one six states the employs the use of drug courts as an alternative to prison. The program works on an incentive structure. Participants in the program volunteer their time and undergo treatment; if they do not stay clean then they run the risk of going to prison. The program needs approximately 4 million dollars to continue functioning.
- The Associated Press has reported that the Pennsylvania Bar Association has asked an appeals court candidate to remove a T.V. ad that the Association feels is misleading. Nominee Vic Stabile is running an ad that accuses rival candidate Jack McVay Jr. of nepotism. The ad also accuses McVay of breaking the oath he took when sworn into the bar association by this act of nepotism.
- The Sentinel reports that money in elections has infiltrated every level of elections in Pennsylvania, ranging from tax collector to the Supreme Court. The article highlighted multiple instance of money being used to influence the outcome of elections on all levels. Elections in Pennsylvania are becoming increasingly more politicized, and special interest group funding has become to common.