Effective Monday, the Court of Common Pleas of Mercer County, Pennsylvania will be down to two full-time judges. One of those judges, Robert G. Yeatts, recently assured the public that courts will stay open for business, using retired judges to “run the courts as much as possible.”
Fortunately, the state politicians responsible for filling the seats seem aware of the problem and plan to add new judges as soon as possible. But this story beings into sharp relief the courts’ dependence on others for their most basic resources.
Luzerne County, Pennsylvania is the latest court to transition to electronic filing, and it is finding the same immediate advantages, and the same growing pains, as other state courts around the country. On the plus side, e-filing is easier for attorneys who will no longer have to trek to the courthouse to file or review documents. It will also be easier (and cheaper) for the court system, which will move to a state-run electronic records management system. But the transition may make it harder for media to access information on recent filings. A similar problem led one media outlet to file a lawsuit against the Cook County (Illinois) courts earlier this year, citing First Amendment and transparency concerns.
The Philadelphia Bar Association has published recommendations to voters on local judicial candidates for decades. This year, for the first time, it handed out a list of recommended candidates at selected polling places attempted to measure whether those recommendations made an impact. The news was encouraging:
The Bar Association’s presence increased the gap between recommended and not recommended Common Pleas candidates by about 0.4 percent at the 41 polling locations, a significant impact in an election where winners needed just over 4 percent of the vote. Had the Bar Association placed volunteers all over the city, only one not-recommended judge would have won, as opposed to the three that actually did.
Some important caveats: the study was geographically limited, and several candidates who were not recommended were still elected (they were all placed in the first column on ballots). Moreover, at a time in American history when distrust of expertise is so high, some portion of the public seems likely to vote against the bar’s recommendations simply because they came from attorneys. And bar recommendations are only needed because Pennsylvania continues to insist on electing its judges in the first place. But overall, this is good news. I hope the bar association can come up with the resources to expand its distribution program for the next election cycle.
The Luzerne County, Pennsylvania courts will not be scheduling criminal jury trials during the summer months, prompting concern from local officials about a potentially burgeoning prison population.
Scheduling criminal trials during the summer has become increasingly difficult because parties involved often have planned vacations, including attorneys, witnesses, experts who must provide testimony, and prospective jurors, Shucosky said.
Instead of being forced to continue proceedings due to scheduling conflicts, court officials opted to shift the focus and concentrate primarily on non-jury trials, guilty pleas and negotiated plea bargains during the two months, he said.
Court officials expect a large number of cases will be resolved through this effort, allowing some inmates to get out of prison or start serving sentences instead of awaiting adjudication. Many minor cases result in guilty pleas with a sentence of time already served, Shucosky noted.
Former governors Dick Thornburgh, Tom Ridge, Mark Schweiker, Ed Rendell, and Tom Corbett have published an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer, calling for the merit selection of all judges in the Keystone State. Their position goes beyond even the current proposed legislation, which would extend merit selection only to the state’s appellate judges. The governors note:
Merit selection is not a panacea. We are hardly naïve about today’s political realities. Nonetheless, having in place a system by which any qualified candidate can apply for an open seat on the appellate bench and be considered by a bipartisan, diverse group of citizens from across the commonwealth — a group tasked with evaluating the strength of that candidate’s professional and personal qualifications to serve — is a far better system than one in which random ballot position, fund-raising, and campaigning are determining factors.
The op-ed also cites to the excellent work being done by Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts to make the case for changing the state’s judicial selection system.
State Representatives Bryan Cutler and Madeleine Dean have proposed an amendment to the Pennsylvania constitution that would eliminate direct elections for state appellate judges. Instead, judges would be chosen by merit selection. Under the plan, a 13-member panel would choose five nominees for a judicial vacancy, and send that list to the governor. The governor would then select one of the five nominees, and the state senate would confirm the final selection. Judges would then face periodic retention elections. The proposal mirrors many of the best qualities of existing merit selection systems.
Similar bills have been proposed in the past (including many by Rep. Cutler), without much success. But you can’t move the needle if you don’t keep trying, and Pennsylvania’s direct elections of judges have not been anything to write home about. Good luck to the proponents this time around.
Brian Tupper, a claims analyst with Berkshire Hathaway, will take the bench in Wilkes-Barre. The seat was held by Tupper’s father until his recent retirement. The local story notes: “Because he is not a law graduate, Tupper prepared for his new job by completing a four week certification course with the Justified Judicial System of Pennsylvania in June 2016.”
Pennsylvania voters will go to the polls this coming Tuesday to choose their state judges in their traditional odd-year, contested, partisan elections. Here are some of the late-breaking stories from across the state:
- The Philadelphia Democratic City Committee has had a rough few days. First, it endorsed ten candidates for what it thought was ten open positions on the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas (the state trial court). But the state Supreme Court subsequently cut the number of open seats to nine, leaving the Committee with one too many endorsements. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Bar Association announced its intent to hand out flyers with its own endorsements — based on neutral evaluations, not party affiliation — at the same times and locations as the Democratic City Committee.
- The Philadelphia Inquirer has the lowdown on every judicial candidate in the city (Democrat and Republican) here.
- 24 candidates are vying for six judgeships in Northampton County. The job pays $90,000 per year, requires the judge to perform weddings and handle traffic tickets. A law degree is not required.
- Candidates in a single trial court race in Westmoreland County have collectively spent more than $268,000 — nearly twice what the job pays.
- As we reported earlier this week, Martin Sheen continues to stump for one judge seeking reelection. Nothing particularly wrong with that, although Sheen has seen fit to blur the endorsement lines between his real identity and that of the president he once played on TV.
- An Erie newspaper has editorialized against the current election system, noting that it is “no way to staff a competent bench.”
- And the Reading Eagle offers an editorial endorsement of the Pennsylvania Bar’s candidate evaluations.
Finally, in a very positive development, the proposed legislation to shift Pennsylvania from partisan judicial elections to a merit selection system gained some traction when the House Judiciary Committee approved a measure to place the issue before the voters. There is still a long road ahead, but it can be done. And voters in other states have proven more than capable of understanding the benefits of merit selection.
Tuesday should be interesting.
In advance of this month’s statewide judicial elections, actor Martin Sheen has appeared on YouTube and television, advocating for the reelection of Pennsylvania judge Joseph Cosgrove. That Sheen would support Cosgrove is not surprising: they are apparently old friends and political allies, and Cosgrove evidently represented Sheen for time when he was in private practice.
But the ads are not just an endorsement from Martin Sheen, the actor. Sheen deliberately blurs the line between his real-life persona and that of Josiah Bartlet, the fictional president from “The West Wing.” Here is the YouTube endorsement, featuring a “decree” signed by Bartlet.
Continue reading “Imaginary president stumps for real judicial candidate”
Many states conduct periodic performance evaluations of their judges, either for internal education and improvement, or to educate voters in advance of judicial retention elections, or both. No state formally evaluates judicial candidates along the same criteria — a process I have called prospective performance evaluation — but the task is so important that local and state bar associations sometimes undertake it themselves.
The Philadelphia Bar Association recently unveiled their new evaluation process for judicial candidates, and it is impressively thorough — much more than this local news report suggests. The standards set forth by the Philly Bar are carefully done and well worth a review by voters and court observers alike.