Gavel Grab

Some Politicians Protest Over PA Governor’s Judicial Advisory Group

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has convened an advisory commission to help him screen and select qualified appellate judges. Now there are complaints from state Senate Republicans about the role of the advisory group, although any interim appointee would require a confirmation vote from two-thirds of the Senate.

“The governor certainly has every right to review and to do background checks, and he should, on any nominees that we may submit to him,” said Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, according to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. ”But I’m not going to have people go through a panel of his choosing to let them decide whether people are qualified or not.” Read more

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Editorial: Given PA Court’s ‘Rap Sheet,’ It’s Time for Merit Selection

Various editorial boards’ hammering at the scandal-ridden Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and urging a switch to merit selection of top judges to pick better qualified jurists, is unrelenting. The latest comes from LancasterOnline.

The editorial mocks the “court rap sheet” that includes one ex-justice convicted of corruption and two others disgraced, having resigned in an offensive email scandal. It finds the big money-fueled, partisan system for electing justices wanting and declares, “We believe a merit system is the answer.”

“We are hesitant to take away power from voters. But, given the scandals revolving around the state’s elected judges, and the meager voter turnout — one in five of eligible voters came out during the past election cycle — our current system has left us with little choice,” the editorial says. “The General Assembly should pass this bill. It would represent an important step toward judicial independence. It would Read more

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Editorial Scorches Seeming PA Judicial ‘Arrogance,’ Also Backs Merit

A scathing Philadelphia Inquirer editorial rips the judicial discipline process that allowed Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Michael Eakin to resign amid a lewd email scandal and avoid a public trial and the penalties it might have brought. Eakin was fined $50,000 and allowed to keep his pension (see Gavel Grab).

“The unmistakable impression is that Pennsylvania’s entire judiciary suffers from an arrogance that prevents it from subjecting its own to the sort of unflinching judgment it imposes on others,” the editorial says.

The editorial voices disappointment “that the disciplinary court, particularly after one of its judges showed an encouraging grasp of the need for a public process, gave in to the system’s unhealthy proclivity for backroom bargains.” It goes on to say that another justice was a “more prolific porn-mail participant” than Eakin but enjoyed a “similarly quiet exit” from the high court less than two years ago. The editorial concludes by citing unanswered questions and urging adoption of merit selection of top judges: Read more

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Ex-Justice Eakin is Fined, Can Keep His Pension

Pennsylvania’s Court of Judicial Discipline concluded that former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Eakin undermined public confidence in the judiciary. It fined him $50,000 in an ethics case arising from lewd emails, and permitted him to keep a $153,000 annual pension, The Allentown Morning Call reported.

“The common thread of the emails — with their imagery of sexism, racism and bigotry — is arrogance,” the discipline tribunal said. However, any bias reflected in the emails did not permeate his judicial opinions, it said. Eakin resigned recently, and his stepping down enabled him to avoid a public trial.

Eakin is the second justice to leave the court amid the email scandal, a series of events that has ignited calls and legislation for Pennsylvania to scrap its system for electing top judges and turn to a merit-based system for appointing them. “There is a need to reform the judicial system,” state Sen. Anthony Williams, a Democrat, said this week. “The general public is no longer confident of those who sit in judgment of others.” Read more

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Op-Ed: To Fill PA Court Vacancy, Test Merit Selection

As Gov. Tom Wolf prepares to fill a vacancy on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, he would do well to appoint a nonpartisan screening commission to vet candidates and thereby test the kind of merit selection process that’s under consideration in the legislature, an op-ed suggests.

The Philadelphia Inquirer commentary was written by former Colorado Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Love Kourlis, who now is  executive director of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS). It is a Justice at Stake partner organization. For background about the proposed merit selection of top Pennsylvania judges, see Gavel Grab.

The vacancy was created by the recent resignation of Justice Michael Eakin amid a lewd email scandal. In related coverage, PennLive.com had an article headlined, “Lawmakers propose sweeping judicial discipline reform in wake of email scandal.” And Philly.com reported, “Judicial court freezes proceedings against former Justice Eakin.”

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Philadelphia Inquirer Takes Stock After Eakin Resignation

Two articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer reflect on the state of the courts after Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Michael Eakin resigned last week rather than face his upcoming trial in the Court of Judicial discipline (see Gavel Grab).

In “Flawed ethics reviews, sharp criticism, and a justice’s path to resignation,” staff writers at the Philadelphia Inquirer recount the sprawling saga of the email porn scandal, tracing it from the early retirement in 2014 of Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery all the way up to Eakin’s resignation last Tuesday.

Also writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Chris Mondics asks if “the shocks, humiliations and embarrassments that have been plaguing the Pennsylvania judicial system for decades [will] ever come to an end” after Eakin’s resignation made him the third Supreme Court Justice in four  years to be forced to leave the bench for disciplinary reasons.

“Scandal has become an enduring theme of the Pennsylvania judiciary,” Mondics writes, but the recent overhaul in personnel which saw the appointment of three new justice reflects the potential for a brighter future. Read more

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Choose Merit Selection for Pennsylvania, Not Scandal, Editorial Says

Only hours after Justice Michael Eakin resigned from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court amid a lewd email scandal (see Gavel Grab), a Philadelphia Inquirer editorial supported a switch to merit selection, rather than contested election, for choosing top state judges:

“A few weeks before Eakin’s resignation, five former governors from both parties joined Gov. Wolf in supporting legislation to replace the state’s low-interest, high-cost, partisan judicial elections with a merit-based selection process for the state’s appellate judges. Eakin’s departure in disgrace, the third from the high court in as many years, makes it that much clearer that the alternative is regular and reliable scandal.”

Read more

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Justice Eakin Resigns From Pennsylvania Supreme Court

Justice Eakin

Justice Eakin

Justice Michael Eakin has become the second member of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to resign amid a recent pornographic email scandal, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. Eakin faced ethics charges. He had been suspended and had issued a public apology.

Eakin was to face a trial before a judicial ethics court later in March; Pennlive.com said it was uncertain whether his resignation would bring that case to an end. Additional coverage came from The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Associated Press.

Pennsylvania elects its Supreme Court justices, in a system that last year delivered the most costly state supreme court election in national history and that has widely been associated with scandal in the Keystone State. The legislature is weighing a proposal to shift to a merit-based appointive system, supported jointly by the state’s current governor and all living past governors in a recent bipartisan statement. Editorial boards have seized on scandal to voice support for merit selection, and the latest resignation is likely to kindle more calls for reform.

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Advocates Preparing Push for Merit Selection in Pennsylvania

PennsylvaniaPennsylvania’s living past and present governors are a bipartisan group, and while they’ve had their differences, they agree on one thing: “Elections are not a good way to pick state court judges.”

That’s according to a Reading Eagle article about a proposal to replace the contested election of top judges in Pennsylvania with a merit-based, appointive system. The state’s current governor and his five living predecessors made their views public last month (see Gavel Grab), and their endorsement is still rippling across the state in news articles such as the Eagle’s.

Lynn Marks of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a group championing the reform, told the newspaper that advocates are working on a public education effort about merit selection and hoping that this spring, the proposal will advance in the legislature. Read more

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Editorial: Stop ‘Dumbed-Down’ PA Judicial Elections

A plain-speaking editorial in The Express-Times urges a shift to merit selection of top Pennsylvania judges, saying “the Legislature has an opportunity to wean the state judiciary of campaign money and put a stop to dumbed-down elections.”

It was the latest in a chorus of newspaper editorials spotlighting scandals affecting state courts, record-breaking spending in the 2015 state Supreme Court election and a proposal before legislators for an appointment-based selection system. Some of the other recent news coverage from Pennsylvania about elected judges included the following: Read more

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