The Republican candidate for Lieutenant Governor, Jim Matthews, better not imitate Governor Rendell’s infamous 100 mile an hour stints on the turnpike as he crosses the state in the final weeks of this campaign. After some comments last week about pay-to-play judges in Philadelphia, there probably isn’t a judge in this state that will cut him a break if he gets a speeding ticket.
Matthews, a business executive by profession, did more to rile judges and lawyers in this state since Shakespeare wrote: “The first thing we do is kill all the lawyers.” At a press conference Matthews challenged fund raising practices by judicial candidates saying: “I know there are judges in Philadelphia who have that sheet and see who that attorney is – the defense attorney, in politics and contributions.” He continued: “There’s a lot of pay-to-play judge shopping mentality going on in Philadelphia.”
From Lake Erie to the Delaware River, Matthews set off a judicial firestorm. “It’s an irresponsible statement from a candidate for high-elected office,” admonished Alan M. Feldman, chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, “he has with a broad brush tarred and feathered the entire Philadelphia judiciary.” Ironically it was on the same day that Supreme Court Justice Ralph Cappy made a speech detailing how honorable and just it was for the state’s ultimate court to bless last year’s 16% state pay hike.
Aside from giving the Swann/Matthews campaign its first jolt of state wide energy, Matthews did manage to bring the gavel down on a big but dormant issue in this state. While money mixed with politics has hit the bottom of the barrel, especially in the amounts needed today, money, politics and judges is like some of the crawly stuff you find when you lift the barrel up and look underneath.
Under Pennsylvania’s original constitution all judges were appointed to a seven year term by an executive council whose members were elected by voters in the states then 12 counties. There were various changes over the years until the 1968 State Constitutional Convention. Since that time most judges are initially chosen in a partisan election and then every ten years stand for a retention vote. The system was status quo until last year when for the first time in history, in reaction to the nefarious pay raise, Judge Russell Nigro didn’t get retained.
Matthews raised the question of the effects of a system where big law firms raise big money for judgesâ€™ election campaigns. Itâ€™s unquestionably an ugly system that has begged for reform for almost 40 years.
The alternative is merit selection. Supported in concept by organizations that range from Common Cause to the Pennsylvania Bar Association, merit selection would have elected bodies, like the Pennsylvania House and Senate, appoint judges or possibly a special judicial commission to oversee the process.
Someday, if we free our judges of the arduous, often humiliating process of raising campaign funds, we will remove any suspicion from our judicial process. In the meantime Matthews better keep his pedal off the metal.
The Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc.