FUMO, WILLIAMS PROPOSE JUDICIAL REFORM FOR PHILADELPHIA
PHILADELPHIA, June 24, 2005 – Judges on the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court and Municipal Court would be appointed through a selection process, under a constitutional amendment resolution prepared by state Senators Vince Fumo and Anthony H. Williams (both D-Philadelphia.)
Fumo and Williams announced today that they will introduce a proposal in the Senate to end the current system of electing judges in the state’s largest city. Instead, the Governor would choose from a list of highly qualified candidates supplied by a Judicial Nominating Commission. Appointees would be subject to confirmation by a two-thirds majority of the state Senate.
Judges so chosen would have to stand for a retention election initially four years after their appointment, then every 10 years.
"Our method of picking judges has become too heavily dependent on things such as ballot position, campaign contributions, and street money," said Fumo. "Judges should serve on the basis of their legal experience, competency, and professional temperament."
"As citizens, we often don’t know enough about the candidates to make informed decisions on those who would hold seats that directly impact the lives of so many, particularly people of color who are ensnared in the criminal justice system," said Williams.
"It is paramount that those seeking to wear the robes not only be sensitive to issues of gender and class, but also to have the temperament and competency to run a courtroom with respect, dignity, and fairness. Many of the people elected seem to do this; unfortunately, there are also those elected who do not, and they taint the system for us all. Judicial reform speaks to change. Philadelphia County needs change. This is a start of a conversation about how best to do that. And make no mistake, the people, not the politicians, will have the final say on approving this amendment," Williams added.
Adoption of the plan requires a state constitutional amendment. For that to occur, the Fumo/Williams resolution would have to be approved by two successive state Legislatures – the one now seated and the one that will take office in January of 2007, after the 2006 general election. It would then have to pass in a statewide referendum. Additionally, this resolution requires that the referendum must be approved by a majority of Philadelphia voters, so that the rest of the state would not be imposing a change rejected by citizens of the city.
The proposed amendment was developed after lengthy discussions with the Philadelphia Bar Association and the statewide nonpartisan court reform organization Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.
Philadelphia Bar Association Chancellor Andrew A. Chirls applauded today’s proposal and the move by Fumo and Williams to adopt a new, non-elective judicial selection system for Philadelphia. Speaking for the 13,000 member Bar Association, Chirls said:
"This is an important step in the right direction. We are enthused about joining our legislative leaders as they launch an effort that seeks real and substantial improvement over the current electoral system. We know that change will not be easy. We know that legislation is a moving target until it is passed. But we are encouraged today. And we will work with all those who are committed to a merit-based non-elective judicial system for Pennsylvania. For the first time in a long time we have a real sense of hope about this issue."
Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts also endorsed the resolution.
"Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts applauds Senators Fumo and Williams for taking this important first step to fix Philadelphia’s broken system for selecting judges. As a long-time supporter of judicial selection reform, PMC welcomes this new effort to put Philadelphia on the path to a better system," said Lynn Marks, executive director.
Fumo and Williams said the amendment is not designed to take politics out of the process. Officials elected by the voters will have integral roles in the selection and confirmation of judges. Rather, the purpose of the change is to ensure that the most qualified candidates are nominated, that campaign money is removed from the selection process, and that a diverse consensus forms around nominees to the bench.
"Tantamount to everyone is the right to vote, and the idea of judicial reform is not to trample this precious right that so many have fought so hard over so many years to achieve. Rather, judicial reform is meant to correct a system that has gone egregiously awry in Philadelphia County," Williams said.
"We force judges to be politicians, soliciting donations from some of the same attorneys that will appear before them. Or, equally as bad, we push would-be candidates into mortgaging their homes, savings or children’s futures on the hopes that they will, one, raise the money needed to run for office, and two, be elected," he said.
The proposal would alter articles IV and V of the state constitution. The plan would establish a Judicial Nominating Commission of 19 members, all Philadelphia residents. The commission must include "men and women from civic, labor and business communities and should reflect the geographic, political, economic, ethnic and racial diversity of the City of Philadelphia." Commission members would be appointed as follows:
1 by the District Attorney of Philadelphia
1 by the Chief Public Defender of Philadelphia
3 by the Philadelphia Bar Association
4 by the Governor
2 by the President Pro Tempore of the state Senate
2 by the Minority Leader of the state Senate
3 by the Chairman of the Philadelphia County Democratic Party
3 by the Chairman of the Philadelphia County Republican Party
When a court vacancy occurs, the Commission would offer a list of at least three but not more than five candidates to the Governor. He would be required to fill the vacancy with one nominee from the list. That nominee would be confirmed only by receiving the vote of two-thirds of the members of the state Senate.
Anyone failing to receive the two-thirds confirmation vote could not be re-nominated by the Governor to the same court for one year.
Members of the Judicial Nominating Commission would serve staggered four-year terms and could not serve more than two consecutive terms. They could not hold any other public office, public appointment, or office in any political party or organization. The Governor would appoint the chairman.
No more than two of the Governor’s appointees could come from the same political party. At least one each of the appointees of the President Pro Tempore and the Minority Leader must be non-lawyers.
No potential nominee could appear on the list submitted to the Governor unless he or she is a member in good standing of the bar of the Supreme Court, and has demonstrated professional competence, judgement and integrity. Applicants for vacancies on Common Pleas Court must have actively engaged in the practice of law or the teaching of law for 10 years, and on Municipal Court, for five years.
Fumo, who has long favored a judicial appointment process, said the difficulty of achieving that goal statewide, plus the severity of problems that plague local judicial races in Philadelphia, caused him to limit the proposal to the city.
"Maybe if this is successful, other areas of the state might want to adopt a similar merit selection system for their counties. And if it works, it might also be a breakthrough in convincing others to go along with statewide merit selection," Fumo said. "My approach to government is the art of the possible."
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For more information, contact:
Dan Cirucci, Philadelphia Bar Association, 215-238-6340
Lynn Marks, PMC, 215-569-1150
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