This week I attended a Pennsylvania Supreme Court candidates’ debate, and found myself timing judges. Each justice had a minute to answer, so for an hour and a half, I held up my cards: thirty seconds, ten seconds, then a bright yellow STOP.
It felt odd, and a little amusing, to be timing judges.
Strange, and a little wrong, to be thinking about which judges I would vote for.
Describing the incident to others in the days after, the response was often the same: What? We elect judges?
Pennsylvania is one of eight states that still elects judges at every level: municipal courts, Common Pleas Court, Superior and Commonwealth Courts, Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
The first set of debate questions addressed the scandals that have led to a record-number of vacant seats on the seven-member Supreme Court. Chief Justice Ron Castille recently retired at the mandatory age of seventy. Justice Seamus McCaffery retired after suspension related to sexually-explicit emails. Justice Joan Orie Melvin was indicted, suspended, and disbarred after charges she used government staff to perform campaign work. One of the remaining four justices, Justice J. Michael Eakin, is now under investigation for his own part in the offensive email scandal:
Scroll through the state Supreme Court Justice J. Michael Eakin's private inbox and it seems as if everyone is in on the joke: judges, state prosecutors, assistant U.S. attorneys, public defenders, private lawyers.
Everyone, of course, except the defendants or victims who could wind up in their courtrooms or offices.
As one of the candidates pointed out, the sexist, racist, homophobic nature of many of the emails calls into question the possibility of a just hearing for anyone in the denigrated groups, but also raises concern about "overly chummy" relationships among justices, prosecutors, public defenders.
An independent Judicial Conduct Board and a Court of Judicial Discipline exist to investigate judicial misconduct, but the PA Supreme Court has chosen to override both entities, and address past and current concerns “in house.” The candidates agreed that the Supreme Court should not investigate itself, but apparently there’s no mechanism in PA law to ensure independent review.
An important question posed to the candidates asked about equal access to justice in Pennsylvania, focusing on issues of bail, public defenders, and investigative resources for indigent defendants. The candidates were clear in their acknowledgement that equal access does not exist in Pennsylvania. Court schedules are crowded, public defenders are overburdened, and Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation that provides no state funding for public defenders. “It’s a question of money,” several candidates affirmed.
Who follows any of this?
Who cares about it?
Why does it matter?
On a simple economic level, as one candidate pointed out, it costs more in the long run to deny real justice: defendants who are pushed through the system without a fair trial can appeal, and appeal again, with lengthy court cases, and heavy attorney fees.
And then there’s the issue of prison costs: states across the country are now spending more on incarceration than on higher education, In Pennsylvania, state investment in education has been cut repeatedly, with a moratorium on new school construction, while money for prisons continues to grow, with a $400 million prison complex under construction, to provide room for 300 additional inmates.
But far beyond the costs of appeals and incarceration are the economic cost in wasted lives, damaged families, lost present and future income. I’ve watched in horror the spiraling cost to families ripped apart by unfounded accusation, inadequate legal representation, illogical incarceration, resultant trauma and anger, subsequent delinquency, a downward spiral of poverty and injustice.
And then there’s the damage to whole communities when the ruling paradigm is incarceration, with the resultant ongoing consequences to families and to ex-offenders after they serve their time:
many return to find that Pennsylvania law prevents them from getting liscences to do certain types of work, prevents them from getting housing and sometimes bars them from entering their former neighborhoods altogether. These types of laws are known as "collateral consequences," and according to a national website that tracks them, Pennsylvania has nearly 1,000 of these restrictions.
"It's become almost like a sport for the legislators to create all these barriers," says Angus Love, a lawyer with the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project.
There’s no simple fix to the compounded injustice that plagues our state, and our nation. Some states have moved to merit selection of judges. That would be a start. The House Judicial Committee will be hearing testimony Tuesday about HB 1336, which would remove the three statewide courts (Supreme, Superior, and Appellate) from partisan elections.
Then there’s the statewide budget: we’re more than 100 days into a budget impasse between the PA legislature and governor. Buried in all the partisan spin is the reality that the budget proposed by the legislature provides ample funding for prisons and little redress of major cuts to education which have left Pennsylvania with the most inequitable school funding in the country.
Add to that a complex structure of laws that strip poorcitizens of their rights while protecting the affluent and well connected, and a legislature far more interested in preserving partisan power than addressing inequities of education, policing, or access to justice.
Again, I pause to listen to the voices in my head: you think too much.
Really, who can expect us to pay attention to this?
What does anyone know about voting for judges, or legislators, or any other of the myriad of offices Pennsylvania sends our way for election?
That’s the hoped for response.
From the two-party machine that works hard to keep us voting the party line.
From the party leaders who reward compliance with nominations and legislative leadership positions.
From the deep pockets that fund the process in expectation of allegiance from judges and legislators who dance to keep them happy.
Years ago our rector Martyn Minns, then lead pastor of Truro Church in Fairfax, Virginia, asked the congregation to join him in memorizing Luke 4:18 to 21, Jesus' public reading from Isaiah 61:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Our church had gained recognition for its support for the pro-life movement. Martyn insisted that our care for the weak and powerless should go far beyond that to provision for the homeless, welcome for the stranger, proclamation of freedom for those imprisoned, sturdy opposition to all forces of oppression.
I’m encouraged to see the Pennsylvania Council of Churches call attention to justice in its annual gathering this week, titled “Lord, Let Our Eyes Be Opened: Breaking the Chains of Mass Incarceration.”
For those of us who can’t attend, there are still ways to engage. Our local League of Women Voters started investigating criminal justice in PA last year. Since then, I’ve repented - often - of my years of inattention, and worked hard to understand the issues and possible solutions.
A readable introduction is Human Rights Watch's Nation Behind Bars, which offers a clear overview of the problem, and recommendations for change.
For a book length discussion, check Michelle Alexander’s highly recommended The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
And there are plenty of organizations providing information and opportunities to engage. I follow DecarceratePA, the Sentencing Project, the Vera Institute of Justice, the Justice Policy Institute, and Justice Fellowship, led for years by a friend, Dan Van Ness, who still attends Truro Church.
The first step in change is to understand, to pay attention, to care at least a little.
And vote. This year’s election will set the tone of the PA Supreme Court for decades to come.
Check the Pennsylvania Bar Association recommendations found on PAVoteSmart, and link from there to candidates answers to questions. Find out more through the League of Women Voters of PA’s statewide Voters’ Guide.
There are lives hanging in the balance.