DN Editorial: The dangers of fundraising judges

Posted: March 02, 2012

THIS WEEK created a beautiful harmonic convergence in the resignation of Traffic Court Judge Willie Singletary and in public hearings yesterday on judicial merit selection.

Singletary, as you may recall, initially got into hot water for suggesting, while campaigning, that donors would get favorable treatment, and later outdid this behavior by allegedly showing iPhone pictures of his genitals to a female colleague. (Singletary, who also resigned by iPhone, might want to consider trading it in for a Nokia.) The state Judicial Conduct Board filed formal charges against him yesterday.

The depressing news is that Singletary isn't even the poster child for judicial merit selection, which would replace the current method of electing judges with a process by which statewide appellate court judges would be appointed, probably by the governor following an independent citizens nominating commission.

Current merit-selection proposals would not apply to Municipal and Traffic Court judges, which is too bad, considering that just in the last year, the FBI raided the homes and offices of two of Singletary's Traffic Court colleagues, and a third flunked a judicial education test required before being sworn in.

Not that we're lacking a poster child for merit selection. One contender: Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, target of a grand jury investigation into state workers' being used to work on her campaign; those state workers were employed by her sister State Sen. Janie Orie, R-Allegheny, who also faces criminal investigation.

In yesterday's House Judiciary Committee's hearings on merit selection, groups that included the Bar Association and the Philadelphia Council of Clergy testified on behalf of changing the system. Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, which has consistently led the charge for merit selection, outlined the problem of how the big money necessary in campaigns is bad news for a judicial system supposed to be based on impartiality and fairness. Instead, we have a system based on a judge's ability to raise money and other factors that have nothing to do with judicial qualifications. (Find their testimony at www.pmconline.org)

Plus, the money that judicial candidates do raise is typically from lawyers, law firms and corporations that are most likely to find themselves in court in front of the judges they help elect. And Pennsylvania judges aren't required to recuse themselves from cases that involve people who have given them money.

Fixing this broken system will take time, since it would require legislation and a constitutional amendment, which itself requires a referendum.

Still, this has been an idea already debated for years. How many poster children for tainted justice do we need before we get action? That action can start with letting your state lawmaker know it's time to get campaign money out of the courts.

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