Q: Have you ever considered a jazzier name? Say, Rockthebench.org? Justice4u? Cleanupthecourts.org?
Marks: [Laughter.] Maybe we should have a contest. A number of years ago we did discuss changing the name but never came up with a better one. We're open for suggestions.
Q: One of your principal goals has long been ending the process of electing judges and switching to "merit selection." Can you tell us what that is?
Marks: Merit selection is a new way for Pennsylvania to choose statewide appellate courts, it's a hybrid of appointing and electing designed to get the most qualified, fair, impartial judges. It gets judges out of the fund-raising business. Qualifications determine who becomes a judge, rather than random factors like good ballot position or a familiar name.
The governor would select judges from a list prepared by a nonpartisan citizen nominating commission of lawyers and nonlawyers. After an initial term, the judge goes to voters for an up-down retention vote. . . . The heart of it would be qualifications written into the [state] constitution. Now you only have to be an attorney, 21, and a resident for a year.
Q: Merit selection has been proposed since 1942. Do you anticipate seeing it accomplished in your lifetime?
Marks: Judicial reform is not for the short-winded, a judge once said. . . . If we don't continue to push for it, it will never happen. We've grown the coalition of civil, legal, business, and minority groups who support reform.
In my lifetime? I have to say yes. . . . In a poll we did last year, three-quarters of people thought the most qualified [judicial] candidates don't win. Three-quarters thought campaign contributions influence judges' decisions; 93 percent said they wanted the chance to vote on whether to select judges.
Judicial races have only gotten more expensive, more political, and nastier. We've seen an influx of money from interest groups - including out of state - and more asking judges to take stands on issues that might come before them. We're very concerned about that.
Pennsylvania is one of only six states that elect all judges in partisan elections.
We could do better.
Q: Why should residents want to give up the right to vote on powerful judges?
Marks: I ask a different question; people should want to vote on whether we change the way we select judges. . . .
Q: Gov. Ed Rendell was a big supporter of merit selection. How about Gov. Corbett?
Marks: Gov. Corbett also supports it.
Q: How do you reconcile the fact that those most knowledgeable about the system - lawyers - have the greatest stake in not offending judges?
Marks: There certainly are organizations involving lawyers which do advocate for ethical changes. It's particularly true that trial lawyers are more reluctant to speak out. . . . One of the lessons learned in the Luzerne County judicial scandal is how crucial it is for people involved in the legal system to speak out when they see injustice. We can't sit idly by.
Q: Two Luzerne judges were convicted in a "cash for kids" scheme, with kickbacks from private detention centers. Have changes resulted?
Marks: We hope this tragedy serves as a wake-up call for long-term reform. So far it has not.
Q: After nearly a decade of discussion, the state Supreme Court is letting PCN carry its oral arguments. Is this a positive development?
Marks: [It's] an important educational tool. People are woefully uninformed about the court system, yet it affects all our lives. . . .. Yes, it's an important step. We wish the U.S. Supreme Court would follow the lead of Pennsylvania and others.
Q: What's on your fall agenda besides taking another stab at getting a merit-selection bill passed?
Marks: We recently issued a report on improving the judicial-discipline system that grew out of the Luzerne scandal . . . [and] we are particularly concerned about big contributors who appear before judges they support.
Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or firstname.lastname@example.org.