Critics Charge Pennsylvania Courts Are Stuck in `Judicial Dark Ages' Elections of Justices Don't Result in the Best Getting Chosen, They Say

By David Rohde, | The Christian Science Monitor, November 1, 1993 | Go to article overview

Critics Charge Pennsylvania Courts Are Stuck in `Judicial Dark Ages' Elections of Justices Don't Result in the Best Getting Chosen, They Say


David Rohde,, The Christian Science Monitor


AS Pennsylvania voters prepare to elect one new state Supreme Court justice to a 10-year term and retain or reject another tomorrow, critics of the popularly elected and extremely powerful court are calling it "a national embarrassment" stuck in the "judicial dark ages."

Last week, Justice Rolf Larsen of the seven-member Supreme Court was indicted on felony charges of illegally using court employees to obtain prescription tranquilizers for his own use. Last November, Mr. Larsen accused court members of taking kickbacks, fixing court cases, taping telephone conversations, and claimed one of his fellow justices tried to run him down with a car.

Justice Nicholas Papadakos is up for retention and coming under fire for hiring his son as his $73,000-a-year law clerk and for voting to increase his own pension. Critics are calling Mr. Papadakos arrogant for not simply retiring. Even if he wins another 10-year term, the state constitution will force him to retire next year when he turns 70. Calls for reform

The problems of the court go far beyond the ideological battles that sometimes occur in the 39 states that elect or popularly retain state Supreme Court justices. Critics charge that the Pennsylvania court's rulings are frequently contradictory and in some cases openly political, fueling a decade-old movement to appoint judges instead of electing them.

"In Pennsylvania all it takes to be a judge is connections, money, and luck," said Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a nonpartisan group that wants judges appointed instead of elected as they have been since the 1850s.

"The election process doesn't necessarily give us the best people for the court. Nobody knows who they are voting for," said Ronald Castille, this year's Republican candidate for state Supreme Court justice and a former Philadelphia district attorney. "The whole process demeans an institution that should be beyond reproach," he said.

Other states have had difficulties with judicial elections. In 1990 elections, widely respected judges in both Washington State and Texas unexpectedly lost retention bids to candidates with with names similar to local or national celebrities.

"What do {voters} know about these people? The senator, the governor, they have some idea, but the judge - they don't know him at all," said Prof. Roy Schotland of the Georgetown University Law Center.

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