Blame the Judge, Not the System

February 27, 2013

The conviction of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin on six counts of public corruption has unleashed a torrent of criticism.  Not of Justice Melvin, but of the system of democratic elections that elevated her to the bench.  Retired Superior Court Judge Phyllis W. Beck sums up this view:  “When a Supreme Court justice is convicted of misusing court resources for her judicial campaigns, something is fundamentally wrong with the system.  After all, this could only happen in a system where we elect our judges.”

Actually, cases of public corruption occur wherever there are public servants, regardless of how they are selected.  In the past, I’ve pointed to examples of ethically challenged judges chosen under “merit” selection in FloridaNew Mexico, and Missouri.  The simple truth is, no judicial selection system has been found that puts only angels on the bench.

Judge Beck traces the problem with elections to the fact that “most of the [campaign] money comes from lawyers and potential litigants who might appear before [judges].”  But her solution – putting these very same elite lawyers in a the proverbial smoke-filled room and letting them pick judges outside public scrutiny or accountability – is hardly a way to reduce the influence of lawyers in the selection process.

When it comes to cases of corruption or abuse of power, it’s time to stop blaming the system and start blaming the judge.

Posted by in the categories: Florida, Missouri, New Mexico, Pennsylvania


One Response to “Blame the Judge, Not the System”

  1. Kimm on July 8th, 2013 5:30 am

    You miss the point. Voters do not have the information that they need to make informed decisions about judges. In PA, where judges are elected, judges are not permitted to campaign on issues – how they would rule on issues – because judges are supposed to rule on facts and law. So it is impossible for judges to run much of a substantive campaign.

    I’m a lawyer. But I can only evaluate a small number of judges whom I have personally encountered, or know by reputation or by reading their opinions. I have not read most judge’s opinions. So even as a member of the Bar, I really have next to no good information to go on when voting for judges, and as far as I can see my colleagues do not either. Like it or not, lawyers are going to be the ones who are in the best position to evaluate judges. Most nonlawyers will rarely if ever encounter a judge.

    And the reality is, most people either don’t vote for judges, because they don’t believe that they can make a responsible, informed decision (I often don’t), or they vote a straight party line, which does not do anything to further the goal of having intelligent, thoughtful, fair jurists. Here in Philadelphia, to be a judge you have to pay $100K or so to the party for “street money,” to get the machine to campaign for you. You also have to have paid your dues politically. Then you might get to be endorsed as a party candidate. Then you have to win the ballot lottery – those who win the positions at the top of the ballot get elected. Get a low position and you are pretty much doomed – however bright and fair.

    The best judges I encounter as a lawyer are the appointed federal judges. Some of that is because they have a lower caseload, but mostly it’s because someone really evaluated them on their merits, rather than their bank account and ballot position.