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Editorial: Pennsylvania Justices ‘Meddling’ with Retirement Clause

The Pennsylvania Constitution dictates that state judges must retire at the age of 70. The Supreme Court seems inspired to change this law in the not-so-distant future, a Philadelphia Inquirer editorial suggests.

On May 8, the justices will hold arguments on a challenge to the state’s law (see Gavel Grab). Since Chief Justice Ronald Castille (photo), who is 69 years old, plans to run again for retention election this year, it’s easy to see why they are eager to take up the case, states a Philadelphia Inquirer editorial.

Besides Castille, three other Pennsylvania justices will be turning 70 over the next five years. This seems to be yet another instance of the state’s high court “moving aggressively” to “meddle” in a case of direct personal interest, the editorial argues. Read more

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Ex-Governor Lingle of Hawaii Defends Merit Selection

Former Republican Gov. Linda Lingle of Hawaii has defended merit selection of judges and four Pennsylvania ex-governors who are advocating a switch to merit selection in their state.

Lingle detailed her views in a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal, which recently published an editorial critical of merit selection (see Gavel Grab for the ex-governors’ response).

Lingle wrote that the Journal editorial set up a false choice in portraying the only methods for picking state judges as “the rough and tumble of electoral accountability” and “leaving the choices to a lawyer’s guild that is accountable to no one but themselves.”

Read more

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Pennsylvania Court to Hear Mandatory Judicial Retirement Case

Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices have agreed to hear a case that could have a direct impact on their future retirement plans. On May 8, they will hold arguments on a challenge to the state’s law requiring all judges to retire at age 70, states the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The article says that four of the Supreme Court justices will reach age 70 within the next five years. The mandatory retirement law has been in place since 1969.

Philadelphia lawyer Robert C. Heim filed a recent challenge against the law, citing it as an “important issue not only for the courts but society generally. We’re an aging population and we’re a healthier population. Times have changed, and it’s time to take a fresh look at things.” Read more

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Ex-Governors Refute Wall Street Journal Editorial on Merit

“Merit selection isn’t about selecting liberal or conservative judges,” four former Pennsylvania governors said in a letter to the editor refuting the central thesis of a recent critical Wall Street Journal editorial. The editorial said merit selection “has regularly sent state courts to the left.”

“As former governors of Pennsylvania, we care about choosing judges based on their experience and qualifications, not their political connections and fundraising skills. Merit selection is supported by a broad coalition of Pennsylvania businesses, civic and law-related organizations and religious groups,” the former governors wrote.

The group of former governors includes Republicans Dick Thornburgh and Tom Ridge, and Democrats George Leader and Ed Rendell. In March, they wrote a letter to the state legislature touting the benefits of merit selection, particularly in the wake of Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin’s conviction (see Gavel Grab) for public corruption.

The former governors, further disagreeing with the editorial,  said merit selection of judges provides accountability. Read more

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Opinion: Merit Selection Warrants Attention in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania voters regularly elect their state appellate judges, even though few of them know more than the candidates’ name or gender. A Go Erie opinion argues that Pennsylvanians should heed the advice of four former state governors, and adopt a system of merit selection.

Former governors Dick Thornburgh, Tom Ridge, George Leader and Ed Rendell wrote a letter to the state Legislature in March touting the benefits of merit selection, particularly in the wake of suspended Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin’s conviction.

“The conviction of a Supreme Court justice for campaign corruption is just one more example that highlights the need for reform,” the governors wrote. “Electing appellate court judges in divisive, expensive, partisan elections is not working for the people of Pennsylvania. This is an issue that transcends politics, party lines, and individual agendas.” Read more

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Pennsylvania Editorials Sharply Divided on Merit Selection

Pennsylvania’s method of electing appeals court judges is “flawed,” argues a Centre Daily Times editorial. Statewide elections force judges to seek campaign contributions from lawyers and other individuals who may appear before them in court.

The editorial applauds the views of four former Pennsylvania governors who recently came out in support of switching to a system of merit selection for judges (see Gavel Grab). With merit selection in place, judges won’t find themselves awash in campaign money that can skew the appearance of their impartiality, the editorial says.

Voters often lack information on judicial candidates, causing them to “take a shot in the dark in making their selections.” Former Gov. Tom Ridge has argued that judicial elections cast “a heavy cloud over the integrity and independence of our judicial system.” Read more

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Column: Pennsylvania’s Highest Court in a ‘Supreme Mess’

Short one justice and with another who may have to retire due to age restrictions, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is in a sticky situation, according to a Philadelphia Daily News column by John Baer.

Seven justices typically sit on the bench, but Justice Joan Orie Melvin was suspended last May, leaving only six to decide cases. Melvin resigned from the court this wek after being convicted earlier this year on public corruption charges (see Gavel Grab).

If the justices decide any case on a three-three vote, the decision is “meaningless,” and the lower court decision would stand, Baer says.

Chief Justice Ron Castille is currently 69 years old, and may have to step down soon since Pennsylvania’s constitution decrees that “judges retire at 70.” The requirement is currently being challenged in court. Read more

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JAS Partner Applauds Resignation of Convicted PA Justice

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin submitted her resignation on Monday, allowing the state court to “once again operate with a full complement of justices” and saving Pennsylvanians from a “drawn-out removal process,” Lynn Marks said in a statement this week.

Marks is the executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a Justice at Stake partner organization. A Pennsylvania Patriot News article says that the court has been operating with six justices instead of seven since Melvin was suspended last year on corruption charges.

Melvin was facing possible impeachment proceedings from two House members, the article says. Her resignation will be effective May 1.

Marks said Melvin’s conviction “could only have happened in a system where all judges are elected in expensive, partisan elections. Judges should not be forced to be in the fundraising and campaigning business in order to win a seat on the bench.” Read more

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Suspended Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Resigns

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin submitted her resignation on Monday. The justice, who was suspended earlier from the court, was convicted by a jury last month of public corruption charges arising from two Supreme Court campaigns.

Justice Melvin said she intends to pursue an appeal of her conviction. “In the meantime, however, the citizens of Pennsylvania deserve a fully-staffed Supreme Court,” she wrote in  her resignation letter, according to a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review article.

She was facing possible impeachment proceedings in the Pennsylvania House. Her resignation is to become effective May 1.

Following her conviction, calls have risen for Pennsylvania to switch from partisan elections to an appointive selection system for choosing judges. To learn about four former governors endorsing the appointive path, see Gavel Grab.

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Editorial: Pa. Legislators Must Act Now on Merit Selection

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial echoed the call from four former Pennsylvania governors urging the Legislature to adopt a merit selection system for appellate judges.

Currently, Pennsylvanians elect their judges in partisan elections. “Electing appellate court judges in divisive, expensive, partisan elections is not working for the people of Pennsylvania,” the four governors wrote in a letter to the state Legislature last week.

Currently, the Senate is considering a constitutional amendment that would end partisan elections for appellate judges. Instead, a judicial nominating commission would send a list of names for consideration to the governor, who would nominate someone from that list. The nominee would be subject to Senate confirmation.

Before the amendment could go before the voters, it would need to be approved by lawmakers over the course of two legislative sessions. The ex-governors are right to push legislators on this amendment now, the editorial argues.

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