Thursday, June 20, 2013

O'Connor calls for elimination of judicial elections in Pennsylvania

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor suggested that judicial elections should be eliminated in Pennsylvania because contributions to those campaigns lead the public to perceive judges as influenced by campaign donors, reported The Legal Intelligencer.

While Pennsylvania is the birthplace of American democracy, the state has departed from the U.S. Constitution regarding judicial selection, O'Connor said. It is a "serious problem that so many people in our country think that judges are just politicians in robes," O'Connor said.

O'Connor cited the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal in which a justice on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals voted to overturn a $50 million verdict against a mining company whose chief executive officer had contributed $3 million to the justice's campaign.

The 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court reasoned that there is a "serious objective risk of actual bias when the judge ruled on the case of his principal financial donor and our Supreme Court held, under the circumstances, the 14th Amendment due process clause required that the judge recuse himself," O'Connor said. The Supreme Court also urged every state to adopt rules governing judicial recusals, O'Connor said.

While there is no way to know if a justice's vote was affected by a campaign contribution, a campaign donation of that nature "gives the public a strong reason to doubt" the fairness of the justice system, O'Connor said. The best defense to threats to judicial independence is a culture in which people respect the rules of law and the role of impartial courts in upholding the rule of law, O'Connor said.

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