The river of money that sloshes through campaigns to elect judges in Pennsylvania and Philadelphia has long raised questions about the quality of justice and one's ability to remain impartial - especially when a big donor is party to a case.
Judges and other groups in favor of electing judicial candidates have argued that money has no impact on cases. But the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled for the first time that big campaign contributions can influence the outcome of a trial.
The U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling in a West Virginia case is likely to force judges to recuse themselves from cases involving their large campaign donors. The decision will reverberate throughout Pennsylvania, where money (and politics) plays a major role in electing judges.
Indeed, the cost to win a seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is more than $1 million. Big donors to the judicial campaigns are often the very business groups, plaintiffs' lawyers, and union organizations that end up before the judges they help elect.
In Philadelphia, the price to become a Common Pleas judge is akin to the membership fee at a country club. Candidates pay the Democratic City Committee an "assessment" of $35,000 for the party's support. Additional cash is often given to ward leaders to "get out the vote." In all, candidates can spend several hundred thousand dollars.
That doesn't always guarantee victory, since other wild cards such as ballot position and name recognition influence voters as well.
The whole process stinks and does little to bolster the quality of judges, while undermining public confidence in the judiciary.
That's why the Supreme Court decision offers the best justification yet to reform the way Pennsylvanians select judges. In that case, the court found that West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin erred in participating in a case overturning a $50 million verdict against a company headed by a man who spent $3 million on the justice's election.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that "significant" campaign donations or other political support pose a risk of "actual bias."
Voters in Pennsylvania and the 38 other states that elect judges have long argued that the money raised by judicial candidates creates the impression that justice is for sale. (Federal judges are appointed and approved by the U.S. Senate.)
Now, it's up to Harrisburg lawmakers to approve a constitutional amendment that - with voters' approval - would switch the state's appellate courts from partisan elections to a system of merit-based appointments and retention elections.
A halfway reform measure would be to follow Philadelphia's example and impose strict campaign-finance limits in statewide judicial races. But the best solution is to scrap partisan judicial elections that lead so many citizens to question the courts' impartiality.
State Sen. Jane Earll (R., Erie) and State Rep. Matthew Smith (D., Allegheny) are leading the latest effort to select judges based on merit. The reform group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts says the "best solution is to get judges out of the fund-raising business altogether and end the poisonous campaign contribution game."