By Timothy K. Lewis
On Oct. 20, the Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee approved a plan to amend the state's constitution to create a merit-selection process for the appointment of appellate judges. For those of us who have long advocated reform of the partisan electoral process by which judges are selected, this is an important step. It is made all the more urgent, however, by an attack ad leveled this month (and still running) against one of the outstanding candidates for our state's highest court.
I am a former federal trial and appellate judge. I understand that politics always play a role in judicial selection - state and federal. But the ad attacking Superior Court Judge Judy Olson, a Republican candidate for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, was so demeaning of the legal profession and so corrupting of the important exchange of truthful information about judicial candidates, that the group behind it should be ashamed.
What makes this even worse is that the responsible group, Pennsylvanians for Judicial Reform, is supported primarily by a political action committee of the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association and its members. These are people who should know better. What they have done is, in a word, disgraceful.
The ad suggests that Olson once represented the asbestos industry. Putting aside the fact that this is grossly misstated, by this group's standard, great lawyers throughout history - from John Adams to Abraham Lincoln; from Thurgood Marshall to A. Leon Higginbotham, my former colleague on the Third Circuit, and many outstanding lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union - would be unfit to serve as judges because of controversial clients they represented. It is difficult to imagine a group of trial lawyers attacking the character of another lawyer because of any client she may have once represented.
The ad then suggests, without any evidence or context, that because a few of Olson's tens of thousands of supporters might be affiliated with the tea party or antichoice groups, she must be also. But had they looked carefully at a complete list of Olson's supporters, they would also have found Democrats, liberals, and progressives. To pick and choose from a list of supporters in an attempt to take down a good and decent judicial candidate is nothing short of shameful, and voters should reject this smear campaign out of hand.
Full disclosure requires me to note that I have known Olson since she was a law clerk in the federal courthouse in Pittsburgh, where I served as an assistant U.S. attorney. Later, I became a federal judge, and she appeared before me and did a superb job. (I don't remember who she represented, and it shouldn't matter.) After I left the bench, we became colleagues and practiced together at the same firm. Olson has always exhibited the highest principles and the utmost competence as a professional, which is why she received the highest rating from the Judicial Evaluation Commission of the Pennsylvania Bar Association.
But I should also note that I am a Democrat actively supporting a different candidate - Christine Donohue - for one of the three vacancies on the Supreme Court. That support, however, cannot allow me - and I hope will not allow others - to stand silent while a group of lawyers tries to distort the record of another outstanding candidate.
I hope Pennsylvania finds its way to the modern era and adopts the proposed merit-selection amendment. Judicial selection should be removed from the political feeding frenzy election cycles evoke. But, in the meantime, Pennsylvania voters are entitled to something very different from the attack ad this group of lawyers has sanctioned to impugn a highly qualified nominee for our state's highest court. They are entitled to the truth.