Elected judges and judicial independence have always been an awkward fit. “Politicians are expected to be appropriately responsive to the preferences of their supporters,” as U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has observed. By contrast, judges “must ‘observe the utmost fairness,’ striving to be ‘perfectly and completely independent.’”
Put simply, judges are supposed to put aside their political or partisan preferences and decide cases based on their understanding of what the law requires—even if it’s unpopular. That is a lot to ask of anyone—but election pressures can make that job even harder.
Thirty-eight states use elections for their state high courts. Across the country, these elections have become increasingly expensive and politicized. Today, one-third of all sitting justices on elected courts have run in a million-dollar election, as documented in a recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice and National Institute on Money in State Politics. The 2015-16 election cycle had a record number of big-money supreme court races.
Click here to read more from the ABA Journal.
In January our Supreme Court drew our congressional districts. In February the U.S. Supreme Court told the General Assembly that our court could do that. In March and April our Senate held hearings on how to design a citizens' independent districting commission so neither politicians nor courts would draw legislative districts. A compromise Senate Bill 22 was offered on May 22, which sailed through the subcommittees and was ready to be passed.
On June 12 a surprise rider was introduced which changed the structure of our appellate court system. All superior, commonwealth and Supreme Court justices would now be elected from districts designed by the citizens' commission. Appellate courts would no longer be judicial, they would be representative. The basic principle that, especially appellate courts, should not be political bodies was distorted.
The Founding Fathers designed the House of Lords and the appellate courts to be above the political fray. The rider to SB22 must be defeated. We must retain an objective, professional appellate court system.
Click here to read more from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Pennsylvania GOP leaders are calling on the Supreme Court to overturn a state court ruling that declared the state's congressional map an improper gerrymander, scuttling its congressional districts earlier this year in favor of Democrats.
State House Speaker Mike Turzai and Senate President Pro Tempore, the top Republican lawmakers in the state legislature, filed their appeal Thursday afternoon, marking the latest attempt to overturn the state court's decision after the Supreme Court denied two emergency requests to intervene earlier this year.
Republicans have argued that the state court did not give the legislature enough time to forge a compromise map with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf after it ruled the map unconstitutional in January. When the two sides couldn't reach a compromise, the state Supreme Court redrew the map.
Click here to read more from The Hill.
(AP) After the Pennsylvania Supreme Court 's Democratic majority threw out the Republican-drawn map of congressional districts as an unconstitutional gerrymander, Republicans raised talk of impeaching Democratic justices.
Calls for impeachment even came from senior Republican Party officials.
That talk receded, but Republicans have brought forward another plan that could limit the lifespan of the court's Democratic majority: changing the state's constitution to elect appellate court judges in districts, rather than in statewide elections.
Whether to move the idea farther down the path of amending the constitution—and dramatically reorganize a separate branch of government—is before the state Legislature in the final days of June, as Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and legislative leaders are trying to assemble a new fiscal-year budget.
It escaped nobody's attention that Republicans took a shot at remaking the court within months of the gerrymandering decision that had left them worried about how the court might rule in the future on a pending public school-funding case.
Click here to read more from the Chicago Tribune.
Supporters of a Republican proposal to create judicial districts for Pennsylvania's highest courts say it would ensure all areas of the state are represented on the benches and reduce the impact of money and special interests on the judiciary.
Detractors call the proposal retaliation for the state Supreme Court's January ruling that the congressional district map drawn in 2011 was unconstitutionally gerrymandered.
Thirteen of the state's 18 congressional districts are represented by Republicans, while the state's highest court has a Democratic majority. GOP lawmakers discussed impeaching the Democratic justices who ruled against the old map.
The proposal to create judicial districts was added to Senate Bill 22, which would put citizens in charge of congressional and legislative redistricting. State Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, introduced the amendment shortly before Republicans passed the bill without any Democratic support. It now goes to the House.
Click here to read more from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
The amount of individual stock held in public companies by U.S. Supreme Court justices declined once again in 2017, but three members of the high court’s bench still combine to hold shares in more than 40 entities, according to an analysis of financial disclosures released Thursday by watchdog group Fix the Court.
The financial documents revealed Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito to be the only justices to own stock, although the trio did sell off some or all of their holdings in a number of companies. As of the end of 2017, the justices held stock in 44 public companies, down from 49 the year before, and a marked decrease from 60 companies in 2015, Fix the Court said.
Justice Roberts sold up to $50,000 in Hill-Rom Holdings Inc. and up to $15,000 each in Hillenbrand Inc. and Nokia, while Justice Breyer sold up to $100,000 in Cisco Systems Inc. and and Justice Alito unloaded the same amount of C.R. Bard. Justice Breyer also dumped as much as $50,000 in Air Products & Chemical Inc. and $15,000 in Versum Materials, while Justice Alito gave up as much as $15,000 in Schlumberger Ltd.
Fix the Court Executive Director Gabe Roth told Law360 on Friday that much of the divestment came as a result of cases involving the companies arriving on the Supreme Court’s docket. This includes the sale of Justice Alito’s stake in Schlumberger, which he sold following his recusal in the patent infringement case WesternGeco v. ION Geophysical. WesternGeco is a subsidiary of Schlumberger, and the sale allowed Justice Alito to reverse his recusal.
Roth said he believes the sell-offs by the justices are a positive sign while the court continues to have what he calls a “robust business docket.”
“I wish it were a little less protracted, but I think the trend will continue and I’m pleased that it’s moving in that direction,” Roth said.
Click here to read more at Law360.
The successful recall of Aaron Persky caps an emotional and intense two-year campaign for his ouster led by opponents appalled at the California judge’s lenient sentencing of sexual assault convict Brock Turner. It also marks a historic and rare event: The last time a sitting judge in California was recalled was more than 80 years ago, in 1932.
The recall campaign—and its results—have been viewed by many in the legal establishment with trepidation about the signal it sends regarding judicial independence. Legal experts and outside observers, though, seem to agree that the circumstances surrounding Persky were unique and not likely to be easily replicated.
At the same time, some say the outcome gives future judicial opponents a new measure of confidence about the feasibility of ousting a judge through a recall or other election process and provides would-be recall campaign leaders a blueprint of sorts to follow.
“It’s hard to meet all the requirements [of a recall]. It’s hard to get all the petitions signed, and then keep the anger level up,” said Charles Geyh, a professor at the Maurer School of Law at Indiana University and author of a forthcoming book about judicial elections. Geyh said the Persky recall was the “one-in-a-million” case where campaigners were successful.
“This may embolden angry locals to get judges recalled in the near term,” Geyh added.
A minority of states in the U.S. allow judicial recalls. Only nine have such a mechanism on the books, and four of them require certain facts be alleged or proven in order for the process to be triggered.
Click here to read more from Law.com.
Meek Mill’s legal team is no stranger to digging into the background of jurists and raising issues they think may create a conflict, but as the Pennsylvania Supreme Court begins considering the rapper’s latest appeal, Justice Debra Todd is getting out ahead of any possible claims that campaign contributions might influence her handling of the case.
On Tuesday, Todd issued a disclosure letter outlining the money that Reed Smith attorneys contributed to her 2017 retention campaign. One of the lawyers, Pittsburgh-based Kim Watterson, is a leading attorney on Mill’s case, which is on appeal to the high court for the second time this year.
Mill, whose real name is Robert Williams, filed an emergency king’s bench appeal to the Supreme Court last week, asking that the justices exercise their plenary jurisdiction and remove Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Genece Brinkley from handling his case. Late last year Brinkley sentenced Mill to a lengthy prison term for a parole violation, and, ever since, Mill’s team has raised numerous issues, from lawsuits Brinkley has filed to allegations that she was infatuated with the hip-hop star, as part of their effort to get her tossed from the case.
Brinkley is currently set to preside over a hearing on June 18 regarding Mill’s post-conviction appeal.
According to Todd’s one-page disclosure, 12 Reed Smith lawyers contributed a total of $12,250 to her 2017 retention bid, including a $1,500 contribution from Watterson.
As part of the disclosure, Todd said, “I am confident that I can impartially and objectively participate in the consideration and decision of this case.” However, she said she intended to recuse from the appeal unless both parties agreed to waive her possible disqualification.
Both Watterson and a prosecutor with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office filed signed waivers Wednesday afternoon.
Maida Milone, executive director of the judicial reform group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said the disclosures show that Todd is taking recent rule changes regarding disclosing campaign contributions very seriously.
Click here to read more from the Legal Intelligencer.
A Pennsylvania state judge fighting ethics charges for viewing lewd images on a personal computer he kept in his chambers told a disciplinary board Tuesday that he’d been "mortified" to learn that three women on his staff had said they'd walked in on him viewing the material.
Judge Michael Muth, who presides over a magisterial district court in Monroe County, has disputed that viewing lascivious images he has admitted to keeping in his office could be considered an ethics violation, but he told the state’s Court of Judicial Discipline that he should not have put his staff in such an uncomfortable situation.
“People who work in your office shouldn’t be subjected to things like that,” he said during a hearing in Harrisburg. “It’s wildly inappropriate.”
The state’s Judicial Conduct Board, which is responsible for pursuing ethics charges against members of the bench, filed a formal complaint against Judge Muth last July over allegations that at least three staffers had walked
in on him viewing pictures of naked or partially naked women on a computer in his office.
Click here to read more at Law360.
How many more disgraces can the courts in the city and state take? Bad enough that three Supreme Court justices have left in a cloud of scandal in the last few years, or that Philadelphia’s Traffic Court was so troubled that it had to be abolished. All of these have added fuel to the argument for selecting judges based on merit, not on skill in getting votes. The latest argument comes from Family Court in Philadelphia, where defendants say Judge Lyris Younge won’t even let parents explain why they should have custody of their own children.
Instead of letting a mother testify why she should keep her child, Younge ordered the mother to be handcuffed and held until all of the mother’s five children could be put into protective custody in September. Earlier this month, an appeals court judge overturned that decision and reunited the mother with her children. It was the latest reversal of an opinion by Younge which caught the attention of the Judicial Conduct Board, according to the Legal Intelligencer.
Younge won election to the bench in 2015 despite receiving a “not recommended” rating from the Philadelphia Bar Association. She was endorsed by the Democratic machine, which is adept at electing judges in low-information, low-turnout races.
In recent years, voters also elected three judges to the Supreme Court who left in disgrace. Justice Joan Orie Melvin was convicted in 2013 on charges she used staff to work on her political campaigns. Justice Seamus McCaffery took an early retirement in 2014 and Justice J. Michael Eakin resigned in 2016, both as a result of their distribution of pornographic emails.
The state’s judiciary has a problematic history in part because the system of electing judges rewards political skill over judicial talent. Arguments for merit selection of judges rather than elections have been on the table for more than two decades. Finally, a bill to professionalize selection could be voted on in the House before the legislature’s summer recess. It would create a bipartisan commission to recommend judges to the Supreme, Superior, and Commonwealth Courts. The commission would vet the judges, looking at their conduct, careers, temperament, and fitness, and then recommend them to the governor for appointment. Gov. Wolf is generally supportive of merit selection but is researching recent amendments to the current bill. He rightly says the bill should cover all judges, including municipal, district and county judges.
Meanwhile, the judiciary itself should take a more activist role in disciplining its peers. Supervisory judges can and should reassign judges who are the targets of numerous complaints.
Click here to read more at the Philadelphia Inquirer.
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Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts is a statewide nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to ensuring that all Pennsylvanians can come to our courts with confidence that they will be heard by qualified, fair, and impartial judges
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