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Funding judicial races

September 03, 1998

A proposal to remove some of the politics from Pennsylvania's judicial races by funding them with tax dollars probably won't be enacted this year, but lawmakers should begin studying the matter so it can be fully debated in 1999.

Pennsylvania's Supreme Court appointed the Special Commission to Limit Campaign Expenditures last September, shortly before the last judicial elections. In those races, The Associated Press reported, some candidates raised and spent up to $1 million, while turnout didn't top 25 percent of the registered voters.

James Mundy, chairman of the commission, justified its recommendation for public financing of judicial campaigns by citing a poll of 500 Pennsylvania residents, which found that 90 percent believe judges were swayed by political contributions.

Mundy acknowledged, however, that the public's perception may be flawed, since only a few judges have been removed for showing favoritism toward campaign contributors. Citizens might also balk at a proposal to replace judicial elections with process of intensive screening prior to appointment, Mundy said, citing failure of a similar plan in Ohio.

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Even if the public's perception of judges is incorrect, we would argue that in this case, perception matters. If citizens are convinced the only people who can get a break are those who've contributed to a judicial campaign, then respect for the justice system is undermined.

And even the fairest, most impartial judges would find it difficult to forget those who've supported their campaigns, either through letters of endorsement or contributions. Changing the system to have taxpayers fund those campaigns, however, would remind those on the bench that they're responsible to all citizens, and and not just a few.

The commission has also asked the state Supreme Court to immediately limit how much can be contributed and spent in judicial elections. Unlike those proposals, public financing would require legislative action. In the end, however, it will be a simpler means to accomplish the same ends.

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