How many more disgraces can the courts in the city and state take? Bad enough that three Supreme Court justices have left in a cloud of scandal in the last few years, or that Philadelphia’s Traffic Court was so troubled that it had to be abolished. All of these have added fuel to the argument for selecting judges based on merit, not on skill in getting votes. The latest argument comes from Family Court in Philadelphia, where defendants say Judge Lyris Younge won’t even let parents explain why they should have custody of their own children.
Instead of letting a mother testify why she should keep her child, Younge ordered the mother to be handcuffed and held until all of the mother’s five children could be put into protective custody in September. Earlier this month, an appeals court judge overturned that decision and reunited the mother with her children. It was the latest reversal of an opinion by Younge which caught the attention of the Judicial Conduct Board, according to the Legal Intelligencer.
Younge won election to the bench in 2015 despite receiving a “not recommended” rating from the Philadelphia Bar Association. She was endorsed by the Democratic machine, which is adept at electing judges in low-information, low-turnout races.
In recent years, voters also elected three judges to the Supreme Court who left in disgrace. Justice Joan Orie Melvin was convicted in 2013 on charges she used staff to work on her political campaigns. Justice Seamus McCaffery took an early retirement in 2014 and Justice J. Michael Eakin resigned in 2016, both as a result of their distribution of pornographic emails.
The state’s judiciary has a problematic history in part because the system of electing judges rewards political skill over judicial talent. Arguments for merit selection of judges rather than elections have been on the table for more than two decades. Finally, a bill to professionalize selection could be voted on in the House before the legislature’s summer recess. It would create a bipartisan commission to recommend judges to the Supreme, Superior, and Commonwealth Courts. The commission would vet the judges, looking at their conduct, careers, temperament, and fitness, and then recommend them to the governor for appointment. Gov. Wolf is generally supportive of merit selection but is researching recent amendments to the current bill. He rightly says the bill should cover all judges, including municipal, district and county judges.
Meanwhile, the judiciary itself should take a more activist role in disciplining its peers. Supervisory judges can and should reassign judges who are the targets of numerous complaints.
If a judge is acting unfairly, litigants should file a complaint with the Judicial Conduct Board. If the board decides to prosecute, it does so before the Court of Judicial Discipline. Those hearings are open to the public but sometimes the court allows judges to retire, like it did with Eakin, rather than face public humiliation or sanctions. Those deliberations should occur in public.
Discipline should be thorough, fair, swift, and transparent. The courts can’t afford to lose any more credibility.