Time to change Pa.'s system of electing judges

Ousted U.S. Rep. Michael "Ozzie" Myerswas thanked for his campaign help. DAVID PICKOFF / AP
Ousted U.S. Rep. Michael "Ozzie" Myerswas thanked for his campaign help. DAVID PICKOFF / AP
Posted: July 02, 2012

The House Judiciary Committee's rejection of the most recent bill calling for the merit selection of judges caused me to reflect on our system of electing judges in Pennsylvania, and why I have chosen not to put myself through the ordeal that candidates for the state judiciary have to endure in order to take a place on the bench. It also made me think back to a swearing-in of a Common Pleas Court judge I attended in Philadelphia several months ago.

The swearing-in was for a successful candidate in last fall's election, an attorney with 25 years' experience in the District Attorney's Office, someone who is bright and honest, and exercises good judgment; in other words, someone who deserves to be on the bench. But he did not get elected judge because of those admirable qualities, as everyone at the ceremony undoubtedly knew. No, the gauntlet he had to go through, which is the same for everybody running for Common Pleas Court judge in Philadelphia, is unfathomable. It requires spending huge sums of the candidate's own money, payable to ward leaders and other political operatives. The money, euphemistically known as "street money," is ostensibly used by ward leaders for what is also euphemistically known as "Election Day expenses." A state grand jury report of a decade ago, and a Philadelphia Magazine article a few years back, described the amounts spent by the average Common Pleas Court candidate as running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The swearing-in, in a packed courtroom in City Hall, was presided over by a highly respected Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice who took pains to acknowledge and introduce all the elected officials present, including ward leaders. One former councilman and ex-ward leader in particular whom he singled out was Leland Beloff, who some years ago received a 10-year federal prison sentence for trying to extort $1 million from a Philadelphia developer. It wasn't clear why Beloff was recognized by the justice, but I suspect most present understood that he, like other well-known convicted felons such as the late State Sen. Henry "Buddy" Cianfrani, play an important role in our elective process as political operatives who take money from judicial candidates to help them through the political thicket and onto the bench.

When the newly sworn-in judge gave his remarks, he devoted virtually all of his time to thanking those who had helped him get elected. In particular, he recognized a former congressman and ex-ward leader by the name of Michael "Ozzie" Myers. Myers was famously heard on tape in the Abscam bribery investigation in 1980. As he accepted a $50,000 bribe for selling out his public office, Myers said to an FBI agent posing as a sheikh: "Money talks, bull- walks" — words that were heard literally around the world.

As I listened, I thought back to another swearing-in I had attended in New York more than 20 years ago, when my friend and former colleague John Walker took the oath of office for the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, a federal appellate court to which judges are appointed by the president. In his remarks, John talked about the important business of the court of which he had just become a member, and how it had developed into one that commanded the respect and admiration of courts throughout the nation, particularly in the areas of antitrust, admiralty, intellectual property, and securities. John also cited some of the jurists who had sat on that court, such as Learned Hand, who was revered by judges and attorneys everywhere for his clear and concise opinions.

Needless to say, the two swearing-ins were quite different. Yet it would be a mistake to compare the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, or to expect the caliber of a Hand to grace the Common Pleas Court bench. However, as long as we elect judges, we will always have not only the infusion of vast sums of money, but also those who have gone to jail for violating their public trust posing as political operatives, profiting handsomely from the elective process, and being recognized at judicial swearing-ins.

I'm reminded of the film The Godfather, Part II, when Hyman Roth, played by Lee Strasberg, explains to Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) why he did not take revenge for the killing of Moe Greene, who had been so instrumental in building Las Vegas into a gambling mecca: "This is the business we have chosen." Well, electing judges is the system we in Pennsylvania have chosen, and it is the one our legislators have opted to continue.

So perhaps we should refrain from finding fault if convicted felons, knowing that judicial candidates with no name recognition must spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to get in the good graces of ward leaders in order to be on their sample ballots, have been able to find in our system of electing judges a new and profitable life. After all, isn't that part of the democratic process we too participate in when we go to the polls and vote for judicial candidates?

The public, however, might be understandably upset if it knew how many bright, competent, honest lawyers are deterred from seeking the bench because they know what it takes to get there. The public might be doubly upset if it knew that, under our system of electing judges, people who have been convicted of violating the public trust play such an integral role in how we select our judges.

Maybe, just maybe, the time has come to change the system.

Walter Phillips, currently of counsel to the law firm Obermayer, Rebmann, Maxwell & Hippel, served as an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia, an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, and special prosecutor/deputy attorney general for police and official corruption in Philadelphia. E-mail him at walter.phillips@obermayer.com.

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