Forum asks: Does money sway judges?

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Kenneth W. Starr, a former federal Appeals Court judge, participates in the panel discussion at the National Constitution Center. Beside him was Chief Justice Miriam Shearing of the Nevada Supreme Court.

With two seats on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court up for grabs in November, judicial campaigns are gearing up for an expensive fall race.

There will be TV commercials, consultants, lawn signs, billboards and leaflets - all necessary to mount a statewide race.

But does the need to raise money come with too high a price tag? What happens when a litigant or lawyer who has contributed to a campaign becomes a party in a case before a newly elected jurist?

That dilemma was the focus of a forum on judicial independence at the National Constitution Center - an event that drew judges and lawyers to ponder the realities of what it means when Pennsylvania, like more than 30 other states, elects judges.

Miami lawyer Neal R. Sonnett, a panelist, noted that a national poll concluded that 81 percent of Americans believe judges are influenced by campaign contributions.

"That speaks of a judicial system that is falling under the weight of campaign contributions," Sonnett said at the Tuesday-night session.

Other panelists included former federal Appeals Court Judge Kenneth W. Starr, the independent counsel who investigated President Bill Clinton; William H. Webster, a former head of the FBI and CIA; and Phyllis W. Beck, a former judge on the Pennsylvania Superior Court.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Ronald D. Castille, who was in the audience, said afterward that the way in which judges are selected is an important issue in Pennsylvania, where Gov. Rendell supports appointing state appellate judges rather than electing them.

"I've always favored merit selection," said Castille, who was elected to the high court in 1993.

Castille's court will get two new members in the fall, and candidates for the office have already been raising lots of money.

Voters will choose from Republicans Maureen Lally-Green, a state Superior Court judge from Butler County; and Michael L. Krancer of Montgomery County, former chief judge of the state Environmental Hearing Board; and Democrats Seamus McCaffery of Philadelphia and Debra Todd of Butler County, both Superior Court judges.

Campaign-finance reports filed before the primary show the four had raised more than $1 million, and final reports are expected to add significantly to that number - and that's before the fall campaign heats up.

But even with expensive campaigns, it's often hard for voters to figure out which candidate will be the best appellate judge.

"The general public doesn't even know who they're voting for in many of the races," said Henry E. Frye, former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court and one of the panelists.

Webster said he favored the way his home state of Missouri selects appellate judges - candidates are chosen by a nominating committee and the governor then picks someone recommended by that committee. Eventually, the judge or justice is up for a retention election.

Frye said no system was perfect. "The appointed system is great in some places, but it depends on who is doing the picking," he said. "The key is who is on the committee."

Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said the panel was timely, given the prospect of a lively - and expensive - fall campaign for Pennsylvania's highest court.

"It just illustrates how difficult it is to balance the need for judicial candidates to raise money in order to get elected, and the need for the public to believe that their courts and judges are impartial," Marks said.


Contact staff writer Emilie Lounsberry at 215-854-4828 or elounsberry@phillynews.com.