Gavel Grab

Archive for the 'Judicial Elections' Category

PA Supreme Court Election: High Stakes, Full Coffers, Moderate Interest

1048px-Seal_of_the_Supreme_Court_of_Pennsylvania.svgThe Pennsylvania Supreme Court race is making some headlines as candidates try to stand out from the crowd. Campaign finance and straightening out the court have been chief among the issues discussed.

Most of the candidates, including all Democrats, have said judges should be required to recuse themselves from a case with a major contributor, without setting forth any strict guidelines, PennLive explains. This could lead to some sticky situations. TribLive reports that a 2010 study “found that in 60 percent of Pennsylvania Supreme Court cases, at least one of the litigants, lawyers or law firms contributed to the election campaign of at least one justice.” That is expected to remain true or increase after this high stakes election: lawyers and law firms have already contributed about $750,000 to the judges, about a quarter of the money raised by March 30. This total does not include donations under $250, which don’t require the donor to disclose their profession.

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Candidates Fight for Control of Pennsylvania’s High Court

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court primaries are less than a month away, and candidates have already raised almost $3 million in preparation for what some have called a “game changer,” according to Fox 43.PennsylvaniaSupremeCourt

A dozen state judges and politicians declared their candidacy for the three vacant seats that will decide the partisan control of the court. With so much at stake, even more money is expected to pour into the campaign coffers, according to Lynn Marks, the executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a Justice at Stake partner organization.

“Money too often comes from lawyers and interest groups who care about the outcome of races. And yet when we go to court we want to have justice. We want to feel like that judge is fair and impartial and you don’t want to be thinking well gee I wonder if my opponent made a large contribution to the judge,” said Marks.

The primaries will be held on May 15th.

See Gavel Grab for background.

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Concerns Raised About Big Fundraising in Pennsylvania Court Race

law-cash-21816475Advocates who would like to see reform of Pennsylvania’s judicial elections are raising concerns about fundraising in current races for three Supreme Court openings. The total has climbed to nearly $3 million and includes a personal friend’s $500,000 donation to one candidate.

“It was not that long ago when $500,000 was a whole campaign for appellate court candidates,” said Barry Kauffman, director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, according to the Associated Press.

“Unfortunately, judicial races are fueled by money and too often that money comes from lawyers or potentially, litigants,” said Lynn Marks of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, which wants to see a merit selection system adopted for picking appellate judges. “There’s just something wrong with a system that practically requires the campaigns of judges and would-be judges to solicit campaign contributions and endorsements” from those who may appear before them in court, Marks said. Read more

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Millions Raised So Far by Pennsylvania Court Candidates

gavel_cash-300x202With a primary vote set for May 19, a dozen candidates for three seats on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court have already raised nearly $3 million, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Because it is unprecedented to have three open seats in one Pennsylvania high court election, some analysts have forecast record-setting spending. The Inquirer noted that one candidate, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Kevin Dougherty, has reported raising more than $707,000. His brother is the local head of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. At least $302,000 of Judge Dougherty’s campaign funds have come from that union.

Lynn Marks of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts described Judge Dougherty as a credible high court candidate and also said, “It’s really hard to argue that people’s perception of such a system is not corroded when judges can accept huge amounts of money from groups and individuals who could very well come before them.” PMC is a Justice at Stake partner organization.  Read more

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When Judicial Elections Rely on Factors Other Than Qualifications

The many factors that Pennsylvania judicial candidates emphasize in hopes that voters will identify with them are examined in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, which notes that the factors often do not determine a judge’s qualifications.

“There are so many variables,” said political scientist G. Terry Madonna of Franklin & Marshall College, “and I don’t know that they have anything to do with judicial qualifications.”

Lynn Marks of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a Justice at Stake partner organization, said factors such as geography and gender “are the kind of things that can matter when voters don’t know about a candidate’s legal experience or reputation.”

A dozen candidates are running for three openings on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court this year.

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Sizzling Debate Over Chief Justice Amendment Doesn’t Fade

Wisconsin_flag_mapEven after its adoption by voters last week, a proposed constitutional amendment to change the selection method for the Wisconsin Chief Justice still is getting fiery debate.

In a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel commentary, Emily Mills condemned the measure as delivering both partisan politics and “retribution” against sitting Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, a member of the court’s liberal minority. Moreover, she wrote, “Lately, conservative-leaning corporate interests have poured an enormous amount of time and money into tipping the scales of justice in their favor, seeing to it that judges are elected who will rule favorably for their bottom line.”

Billy Corriher of the Center for American Progress had a scorching analysis at Huffington Post, expecting that the measure would result in seating of a new Chief Justice. His piece was headlined, “Big Business Groups, Facing Criminal Investigation, Succeed in Ousting Wisconsin Chief Justice.” Read more

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Editorial: Avoid Ethics ‘Minefields’ By Switching to Merit Selection

justice-scalesLamenting massive individual donations to judicial campaigns, a Towanda (Pa.) Daily Review editorial says it’s time for the legislature to consider switching to merit selection for picking Pennsylvania appellate judges.

“No system is perfect and merit selection would not be immune from politics. It would, however, instantly eliminate the need to raise money while seeking an appellate court seat, thus precluding the potential ethical mine fields that campaign donations create for judges,” the editorial said.

The editorial mentioned that Judge Mike George of Adams County, one of 12 candidates running for three seats on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, received a $500,000 donation from one individual, who listed himself as a teacher in Maryland. Read more

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Pennsylvania: High Price of Entry for Supreme Court Hopefuls

vote signCandidates for Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court are wasting no time jumping into the fundraising race, while publicly lamenting the high cost to compete, according to a report on the Philadelphia Inquirer’s website.   At a debate that included five of the dozen candidates for three seats, all five agreed that the cost of campaigning was too high.  Meanwhile, three candidates have already reported raising more than $500,000, according to Justice at Stake partner organization Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts – dramatically outpacing fundraising in the 2009 judicial race, in which the highest sum raised at this point was $167,730.

An earlier report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette , published before fundraising totals had been fully reported, predicted that top fundraisers in the race could be Pittsburgh Superior Court Judge David Wecht and Philadelphia Judge John Dougherty.   The crowded field of candidates will face a May 19 primary.

Pennsylvania’s system of electing judges has come in for heightened criticism following recent scandals, including the conviction of a Philadelphia judge in a ticket-fixing case (see Gavel Grab.)  One current vacancy on the state Supreme Court is the seat formerly held by Justice Joan Orie Melvin, convicted in 2013 on campaign-related corruption charges.

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TV Advertising Tops $1.1 Million for WI Court Election and Referendum

In the run-up to Election Day, Wisconsin voters saw a flurry of last-minute TV advertising, Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice reported on Wednesday. Total TV airtime spending topped $1.1 million for a judicial election and a court-related referendum.

In defeating Judge James Daley, incumbent Supreme Court Justice Ann Walsh Bradley spent more than $570,000 on TV airtime. The Greater Wisconsin Committee purchased TV airtime for ads opposing Judge Daley in the amount of $170,000. Daley did not air TV ads, using radio and other outreach instead.

A proposed constitutional amendment, approved by voters, sparked a showdown between groups that have long been rivals in Wisconsin Supreme Court elections. The amendment will change the selection of the Chief Justice, switching from a seniority system to a vote among the justices. Read more

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West Virginia Judicial Elections Become Nonpartisan

On March 25th, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin signed a bill to eliminate party identification in West Virginia’s judicial elections, prompting a mixed reaction from activists around the state.

West Virginia Chamber of Commerce President Steve Roberts said the only downside is that the bill took so long to pass – nearly two decades of Chamber advocacy work, according to the Charleston Daily Mail. Roberts went on to argue that nonpartisan judicial elections are especially important in West Virginia. “We have limited appellate review,” he explained, “and that means there is less discussion about cases, fewer eyes on individual cases and that makes it all the more important that the courts get it right every time, every place, which of course is a virtual impossibility.”

Anthony Majestro, president of the West Virginia Association for Justice disagrees, suggesting that removing party identification also removes valuable voter information. Moreover, the legislation does not address campaign spending, a growing concern across the nation. Majestro explained that similar changes have led to increased independent expenditures in other states, “with special interests hiding behind misleading names and refusing to disclose who has funded the effort.” An amendment to address this problem by expanding the state’s public financing program was not given much consideration.

The article explains that this bill is “part of a larger reform package” aimed at improving the judicial and business environments in the state. In the meantime, Roberts insists that “getting the politics out of the courts is a very important step on the way to ensuring a better legal climate in West Virginia and fairer trials for everybody.”

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