Russ Diamond, chair of the PACleanSweep political action committee, and an estimated group of 40 gathered at the Capitol Rotunda in Harrisburg Thursday. They called for Pennsylvania voters to expand beyond the unprecedented rejection of a Supreme Court Justice in 2005 to reject every single judge facing retention in the commonwealth during autumn’s election.
A total of 67 judges – Supreme Court Justice Thomas G. Saylor, three Superior Court judges, three Commonwealth Court judges, 53 Common Pleas Court judges and seven Philadelphia municipal and traffic judges – are up for retention Nov. 6.
It is crucial for all Pennsylvania judges who accepted the 2005 pay raise to be rejected by voters because of the questionability of that decision, Diamond said in a telephone interview Thursday afternoon. Diamond criticized the Supreme Court’s 2006 decision upholding pay raises for judges following their repeal by the legislature and criticized the 2007 decision prohibiting Philadelphia voters from voting on restrictive casino-siting question.
“Our group is really centered on allegiance to the Constitution. The courts have really strayed from that,” Diamond said. “Even the Superior and the Commonwealth courts are making law in their decisions.”
Leaders of the Pennsylvania Bar Association and the Philadelphia Bar Association, released statements Thursday criticizing a call for a whole-scale rejection of every judge up for retention in Pennsylvania.
Andrew Susko, president of the state bar association, said such a radical move would create chaos in the courts and that each judge should be critiqued on their individual merits and full judicial records.
“The public should reject this misguided effort to gut our justice system and throw away hundreds of years of judicial experience,” Susko said in a statement. “Pennsylvania’s voters should judge the judges fairly, based on their record of judicial service and their qualifications and fitness to serve. Merit retention is our state’s nonpartisan system for the voting public to pass on a judge’s service and qualifications by a yes-or-no vote.”
Philadelphia Bar Association Chancellor Jane Dalton’s statement reiterated the bar association’s position that a high-quality bench requires “proper compensation.” Dalton also said that it would undermine the judicial process to reject every single judge on the sole issue of the 2005 pay raise.
“Issuing a mass indictment of judges is a dangerous mentality with tyrannical overtones. A judge does not and must not answer to the popular will of the people. A judge must only answer to the law, the facts and reason,” Dalton’s statement said.
Both bars suggested using their respective judicial commissions to obtain information on the qualification of judges.
PACleanSweep was formed in July 2005 at the time of pay raise and has an e-mail subscription list of 5,500, Diamond said. He said the group is nonpartisan and full of strict constructionists who believe the Constitution “is the ultimate will of the people.”
Former state Supreme Court Justice Russell Nigro was the very first Supreme Court justice defeated in his bid for retention. Former state Supreme Court Justice Sandra Schultz Newman’s retention on the bench was much narrower than normal for judicial retentions.
Seven state appellate court judges are scheduled to face retention elections in November: Saylor; in the Superior Court, Judges Correale F. Stevens, Joan Orie Melvin and John L. Musmano; and in the Commonwealth Court, President Judge Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter and Judges Doris A. Smith-Ribner and Bernard L. McGinley.
Diamond promises Thursday’s announcement won’t be one-time flash in the pan for his PAC’s activity. Over the next seven weeks, PACleanSweep will be releasing, one by one, top 10 reasons to reject all of the judges on the ballot for retention.
Amaris Elliott-Engel, Staff Reporter