DN Editorial: Time to put merit selection of judges on the fast track

Posted: February 22, 2013

FORMER STATE Sen. Jane Orie, who is serving up to 10 years in prison, could soon be sharing a cell with two of her sisters.

A jury Thursday convicted Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin and their sister, Janine, of multiple felony counts for theft of services and conspiracy to commit theft of services, as well as other charges. Both women were convicted of all but one charge against them.

Even in a state that is used to court shenanigans - just last week, the state Senate voted to abolish Philadelphia's Traffic Court after a federal probe on ticket-fixing - Orie's conviction is a shocker.

It's a rare Supreme Court justice who gets convicted. Two recent cases: Diane Hathaway of the Michigan Supreme Court resigned in January, after being convicted of bank fraud, and New York Supreme Court Justice Thomas J. Spargo was convicted in 2009. But it's notable that another example of a convicted Supreme Court justice also occurred here in Pennsylvania. In 1994, Rolf Larsen was convicted on two counts of conspiracy and later removed from the bench.

Besides having convicted judges in common, these states happen to have another thing in common: they all elect their judges. And the election of judges is at the heart of the Orie Melvin case, centering on her use of staff and the state staffs of her sister, the senator, to campaign for office.

On one level, Orie's Melvin's misconduct should come as no shock in a state where the election of judges turns a process that should ensure the most impartial, fair and qualified justice into a money circus. Such elections force judicial candidates to raise money - from lawyers and others who might ultimately appear before them.

And as a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice points out, the ability for special interests to bankroll judicial campaigns is a further chilling indictment of a terrible system. The Brennan report, incidentally, identified Michigan and Pennsylvania as the two costliest states for recent judicial candidates. Orie Melvin and losing candidate Jack Panella raised a combined $5.4 million in their 2009 election.

We know that the flawed process of running for elected office can turn candidates desperate enough to conspire and break the law - the Bonusgate scandals that swept through the state provides plenty of evidence - but that doesn't mean that we should be subjecting our judicial system to this.

And we don't have to: a move toward merit selection of judges has been on a very slow road to change, though a bill now exists in the state Senate that would require appellate court judges to be selected based on qualifications. The Orie Melvin conviction, as disturbing as it is, might turn out to be a good thing if it provides momentum for this to finally pass.

Also required: momentum from the Court of Judicial Discipline board to resolve Orie Melvin's status. As of yesterday, she remained suspended without pay. The discipline board also has the authority to remove her from office. There should be no delay to this particular justice.

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