Gavel Grab

Editorial: End Judicial Election ‘Money Circus’ in Pennsylvania

A new round of calls for Pennsylvania to adopt merit-based selection of appeals court judges surfaced after a jury convicted state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin and her sister, Jane Orie, of corruption charges on Thursday (see Gavel Grab).

“Time to put merit selection of judges on the fast track,” declared the headline for a Philadelphia Daily News editorial. It decried the state of judicial elections in Pennsylvania:

“On one level, Orie’s Melvin’s misconduct should come as no shock in a state where the election of judges turns a process that should ensure the most impartial, fair and qualified justice into a money circus. Such elections force judicial candidates to raise money – from lawyers and others who might ultimately appear before them.

“And as a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice points out, the ability for special interests to bankroll judicial campaigns is a further chilling indictment of a terrible system. The Brennan report, incidentally, identified Michigan and Pennsylvania as the two costliest states for recent judicial candidates. Orie Melvin and losing candidate Jack Panella raised a combined $5.4 million in their 2009 election.”

In Michigan, ex-Supreme Court Justice Diane Hathaway recently pleaded guilty to bank fraud, the editorial noted. A bill in Pennsylvania’s legislature would require selection of appeals court judges by qualification, not election, the editorial said. “The Orie Melvin conviction, as disturbing as it is, might turn out to be a good thing if it provides momentum for this to finally pass.”

Pennsylvania Bar Association President Thomas G. Wilkinson said, according to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, ”The selection and appointment of judges should be based on experience and performance and not on ballot position, political party or effectiveness in campaign fundraising.”

Others calling for a change in the way Pennsylvania judges are selected included Justice at Stake and Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts (see Gavel Grab). JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg, quoted by a Legal Newsline article, said, “Judges should be chosen based on their qualifications, not partisan politics or their ability to fundraise.” He added, “Justice at Stake supports the efforts of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts to let Pennsylvanians choose a merit selection system.”

The Post-Gazette quoted PMC Executive Director Lynn Marks as saying, “Pennsylvanians deserve a better judicial system. It’s time to get judges out of the campaign and fundraising business.”

The two sisters were charged with theft of services and other crimes in the use of  state-paid staff to work on Justice Melvin’s 2003 and 2009 campaigns for the state Supreme Court. A third sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, was convicted earlier and is imprisoned. Justice Melvin, after her indictment, was suspended from the court.

The Brennan Center and PMC are JAS partner groups. Justice at Stake was a co-author of the report cited by the Daily News editorial, “The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2009-2010.

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