Such a system benefits only the few, and that is contrary to the very meaning of justice. It is the few, however, who control Philadelphia's courts, people with political clout - elected officials, ward leaders, power brokers, lawyers with the right connections and some of the judges themselves.
Unfortunately, this decades-long descent of the courts into the back pockets of party pols has met with a few whimpers, but no roars of public outrage.
In last year's primary election, for example, in which nominations for seven Common Pleas and three Municipal Court judgeships were at stake in Philadelphia, only 12 percent of the city's voters went to the polls. (Also on the ballot was the Democratic nomination for district attorney.)
Yet in Philadelphia, most judicial races are decided in the primaries, and last May's vote was a ward leader's dream. The ward leaders weighed a nominee's loyalty to the party, drew up a slate, mustered the party faithful, and in exchange for the nomination ensured their entree to at least some of those sent to the city's benches for the next 10 years.
Politics - not antiquated quarters or a burdensome caseload - is the tentacle that is strangling justice in the city's courts. Until its grip is broken, the system will continue to decline and the mistrust of a skeptical and increasingly frustrated public will grow.
There is no single reform that will bring about the major changes vitally needed. There is no quick solution. In fact, any institutional reform will take years to accomplish, and will entail concerted efforts by the legislature, Gov. Thornburgh, his successor and all Pennsylvanians. But that must not deter action. Indeed, unless demand for change comes from Philadelphians who are embarrassed at what passes for justice in this city, no reforms will take place.
What are those reforms?
* Merit selection of judges. The primary argument against merit selection is that it removes from the public the right to choose their judges. But in Philadelphia, the public doesn't choose its judges; a handful of elected officials, party chieftains and ward leaders do. Merit selection is needed for the judgeships in Philadelphia and Allegheny Counties, where voters can't get to know the qualifications of the candidates, as well as for the state's appellate courts. In 1969, a constitutional amendment to provide merit selection of statewide judges was on the Pennsylvania ballot. It was defeated by 19,502 votes out of 1.2 million cast. It lost in Philadelphia by about 25,000 votes. A new effort to amend the Constitution must be initiated immediately.
* Increased discipline. Many of the abuses documented in The Inquirer series represented violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct and the Code of Professional Responsibility for lawyers. Yet, no disciplinary action was taken. Or if it was, the curtain of secrecy surrounding the activities of both the Judicial Inquiry and Review Board and the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court kept the public in the dark. Until unethical judges and lawyers know that misconduct will be noted and punished, they have no incentive to stop. Over the years, both boards have been lax in holding judges and lawyers who abuse their responsibilities accountable for misconduct.
Some of the Judicial Inquiry and Review Board's inaction has been attributed to the fact that judges make up the majority of its nine members. It is a legitimate criticism, and the makeup of the board must be changed to give lay members the majority. The staffs of both boards must be increased; they must be given far more independence and encouragement to do their jobs, and their activities made a matter of public record. Those changes also will require a constitutional amendment, and that process should be begun immediately.
* Professional activism. Although the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Bar Associations over the years have voiced concern about the quality of justice in the city and the state, they have not mounted aggressive campaigns for reform, choosing instead to remain on the sidelines. Although the associations rate qualifications of judicial candidates, they do little to educate the public about the basis for their determinations. They apparently have forgotten that in the public's mind, the misdeeds of the few taint everyone. It is in the legal profession's interest to clean its house.
* Public activism. As The Inquirer's series detailed, some of the abuses of law and ethics take place behind closed doors. But many of the court system's ills are there for anyone to witness. In a number of states citizens have instituted court-watcher programs, made up of lay people who observe the day- to-day operations of the courts and call attention to problems. The bright light of publicity is an effective deterrent. Such a program could work here and would be a worthy investment for one of the city's civic foundations until other reforms can be instituted.
None of these ideas is new. All have been proposed time and again in Philadelphia and in Pennsylvania. Yet, they have never been instituted. Why?
Because those few who wield political power never have been challenged seriously by the majority. Yet it is the majority of citizens whose lives are affected when its court system does not equitably administer the law. It is they who must exercise their political muscle to force reforms. The diverse constituencies of the city must join together to demand change now.