Judicial Money Alert

In addition to the issue of whether Pennsylvania judges should retire at age 70 -- as mandated in the state Constitution, but under legal challenge in a new lawsuit -- the question of financing judicial campaigns also deserves some scrutiny.

This is so because: Pennsylvania is among a relative handful of states imposing no limits on what can be raised and spent in state political races; Pennsylvania is among a smaller handful of states that elect judges at all levels, and the U.S. Supreme Court has made campaign-financing a wide open game by allowing super-PACs with undisclosed donors to donate as much as they want.

An editorial in Monday's New York Times suggests now would be a good time to address the issue.

The editorial notes that more than half of the $28 million spent nationally on TV ads in state Supreme Court races in 2012 came from groups not connected to candidates, which is to say PACs with undisclosed donors.

The Times notes that in Florida, three justices seeking retention (those yes/no elections almost nobody pays attention to and in which candidates are almost always retained) had to raise and spend $1.5 million to fight off attacks from outside groups.

In Michigan, where three state Supreme Court seats were on the line and $15 million was spent on TV, three-fourths of the money came from outside, undisclosed sources.

Pennsylvania's judicial races are held in odd years, so we're up to bat in 2013.

Even if one believes that in a state the size of ours statewide judges should continue to be elected rather than appointed, there ought to be some agreement that allowing judicial campaigns to be financed with money from undisclosed donors is a problem.

It invites conflcts of interest, tarnishes the justice system and further diminishes public confidence in the courts. Our state courts should set a standard with new rules regarding financial disclosure in judicial races so that any future need for recusal is transparent.

The current system makes "equal justice under law" sound like a hollow, bought and paid for soundbite.