Friday, June 24, 2005

Judicial selection process -- reform on the table

Following through on intentions declared around this year's May primary, Philadelphia's legislators are attempting to reform the way that the city's judges are selected -- hopefully replacing the current payola scheme with something that will better take qualifications into account. State Senators Williams and Fumo have introduced a bill that would set up a new process, including
  • a judicial nominating commission (with inter- and intra-party balance of input)
  • allowing the governor to make the final selections from a short list
  • giving voters the option to vote to retain or oust judges after four years.
This all sounds very sane, but it apparently faces an uphill battle, requiring an amendment to the state constitution, among other hurdles. I agree with the reporter's sentiments: Long process. Long odds. Long overdue.


Blogger Pat Evans/Butcher/Wicks said...

good post- though I do wish a more objective source had been quoted in the story than Fumo or Williams. What does the Bar say about this? What about the ACLU? I am cautious about supporting a cut-back on my voting rights without more details.

1:42 PM  
Blogger Rep. Mark B. Cohen said...

Ray Murphy is right to be cautious about supporting a cutback on his voting rights. In Pennsylvania the debate about judges is about temperament and qualificiations. In Washington,D.C. the debate about judges is about what rights they have taken away and can be expected to take away in the future.

The Democrats have rarely had control of the State Senate since the Civil War. Pennsylvania has not had a liberal Democratic governor since George Leader was elected in 1954, or, arguably, since Milton Shapp was elected in 1970 and 1974.

This plan means right-wing domination of the judicial process. If you like the idea of a Chief Justice John Scalia or Clarence Thomas, you might want to support it. If you don't like that idea, you should actively oppose it.

10:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

PA is in the minority of states that still have judicial elections. Why shouldn't we join more progressive states in having open, participatory selection processes? It's not like the local judicial elections - Philadelphia in particular - are "real" elections. Rep. Cohen - didn't your brother get in as a judge in Philadelphia? Are you concerned that he might not have made it in on the merits if he didn't have the party bosses backing him?

9:35 PM  
Blogger Rep. Mark B. Cohen said...

My brother, Denis Cohen, served 24 years as an Assistant District attorney (he was the senior prosecutor in the Economic Crimes Unit), as Chairman of the Professional Responsibility Committee of the Philadelphia Bar Association, as Chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee of the Philadelphia Bar Association, and as a member of the Board of Governors of the Philadelphia Bar Association.

In addition, he was a leader of his neighborhood (President, Overbrook Farms Club) and of the Philadelphia Jewish community (Vice-President, Jewish Community Relations Council).

Governor Ridge's merit selection panel rated him as the best qualified candidate for Philadelphia out of about 100 candidates.

Regardless of whether or not the right to vote for judges is taken away from Philadelphians, he will be on the Common Pleas Court.

But the fact that I have a well-qualified brother now completing his fifth year of service on the Common Pleas Court does not disqualify me from working to preserve the voting rights of all Philadelphians, for all offices.

Rather, it sensitizes me to to the fact that voters are far more likely to vote for people I and others consider to be good than are people like George Bush and his statewide immitators to appoint them.

7:01 AM  
Blogger ACM said...

It seems to me that the current system is broken when we have so many candidates that voters have to make a full-time project of figuring out whom to vote for in the primary and when owning a restaurant becomes a better guarantee of getting elected than the recommendation of the bar. I value my voting rights, but it's much easier to get together energy and an educational outreach to oust somebody when they come up for voter approval (which is part of the current framework being discussed) than it is to sort through a swirling ballet of little-known candidates for important but sub-radar positions.

We're not talking about allowing state Republicans to decide the choices. The nominating committee is supposed to have reps from both parties, as well as various consituencies within each party (legislature, city, legal associations, DA, etc.). Yes, the governor gets to choose, but if a group like that can agree on a short list, we're well ahead of the current criteria (of anybody willing to pony up the right amount of money).

The only argument that I can see against that is that progressive groups have occasionally organized enough to wedge a good candidate in through the current process (as *one* in the last primary), but at the cost of numerous terrible choices. I'm not sure that one progressive (elected on politics or ballot position?) offsets the three or four bottom-feeders that got swept in on the same enlightened vote. Perhaps the liberals (myself included) would be better off generating more widespread pressure from the bottom, so that their viewpoint is better represented among the city and state leaders reviewing the candidates (or even considering changing the process).

I'll be interested to see what more concrete proposals emerge and what chance they have. Perhaps it will improve things, perhaps not, but I certainly took little pride from the process and outcome of this last round of exercising my vote...

9:37 AM  

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