Maida Milone, Pennsylvania for Modern Courts

When you believe something makes great good sense, you imagine the path to success being a straight line to the goal. That’s rarely, if ever, the case, of course. The natural confidence you feel when tackling a project can cause a trick of the mind, a belief that others will immediately see the logic of your position and share your passion for it. The disillusionment that follows their failure to adopt your plan wholeheartedly or to be cajoled into following you regardless of their questions or concerns can create rifts. Those rifts lead to paralyzingly partisanship or raised voices or stalemates, but never to consensus.

Coalition building is hard work, especially when what you want to accomplish has no natural constituency. It requires active listening, not that pale substitute of making eye contact while you are formulating your next point regardless of whether it is responsive to what the speaker has to say or not. No one changes their mind or finds their way to a different perspective if they are not heard.

Coalition building requires respect for those who disagree with you, even if they seem stubborn or unwilling to hear your arguments. They might have a good point or expose a flaw in your thinking that your enthusiasm blinds you from seeing. And while the experience of cognitive dissonance—that knot in your stomach that follows your recognition that someone else might have a good point and that you just might have to rethink or revise something in your plan—is so very hard to manage, it is an essential part of getting the job done well.

Coalition building requires doggedness, especially if the effort takes decades or more. You simply cannot give up if you believe what you want to accomplish is right or good or at least helpful, and you need other people to agree with you to achieve it. As we have all heard more times than we would like to remember, ”This is a marathon, dummy, not a sprint.”

Coalition building takes kismet, too, unfortunately, just the right mix of circumstances to convince enough of your opposition or skeptics or fence sitters that it is worth throwing themselves into the fray with you to make a change. Their reasons might not be yours, but you cannot afford to be that finicky. Keep your eye on the ball; there is a world of reasons to do the right thing.

While I am relatively new to Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts and have not been at our work for the past three decades, it is abundantly clear to me that the organization understands and values coalition building and the long game more than almost any other I have known. Consequently, I have no doubt that PMC will be successful in bringing our vision to Pennsylvania: to create the conditions for a statewide judicial system in which all Pennsylvanians come to our courts, at any level, whether as litigants, witnesses, jurors or lawyers, with knowledge of the judicial system and their roles in it and the confidence that they will be treated fairly and with respect. Some of the best legal minds in our commonwealth committed themselves thirty years ago to this vision, and continue to commit themselves passionately today.

Call me Pollyanna—my natural sunny view of life might encourage that—but I believe this milestone anniversary year is the year for one of our most cherished goals to be accomplished, replacing the partisan election of our appellate judges and justices with a merit selection system. (Our proposal is embodied in HB 111.) Yes, it is an idea whose time has come, but it is also an idea that has been poked and prodded and tested and shaped over three decades of hardy debate and has earned the support it now so richly deserves.

Confidence in our vision and belief in the value of a citizen’s commission led merit selection process allows us to listen attentively and wholeheartedly to what others have to say about them. PMC never enters a legislator’s office with raised voices or outrage, and Representatives have commented on the calm with which we engage them. We have been and remain willing to listen truly to what others have to say on the subject.

And that ready ear comes from a deep respect for others’ ideas and needs and a willingness to compromise when compromise will lead to the level of support and commitment good government legislation requires. While PMC’s position on merit selection had always hinged on a statewide selection process, the gnawing concern of people from the middle of Pennsylvania that they would not have equal footing with candidates from the western and eastern portions of the commonwealth convinced us that selecting jurists from three districts, congruent with the three federal districts we have all long accepted, is the better way to encourage everyone to embrace this positive change.

There had always been, and remain, cries that this appointive system eliminates citizens’ right to vote for their judges. PMC has been particularly sensitive to this issue and respectful of those who voice it. We have worked hard to address it, too. There have not always been elections for our jurists. We take the current system for granted, but the history of the selection process for judges is long and complex. What is abundantly clear to us, however, is that the system outlined in HB 111 retains the best of elective and appointive systems: the voters of Pennsylvania will be the ones to decide through a ballot referendum whether we move to a merit selection system. They have the ultimate vote. Voters will continue to select magisterial district judges and those for the Courts of Common Pleas. When a judge is on the list of five candidates for an open position nominated by the commission, selected by the governor and approved by a 2-3 majority of the Senate, they will run for retention after only four years on the bench. At that time, all of us will have the information we need to evaluate thoughtfully their ability to remain on our judiciary. And finally, we are the ones who elect the governor and senators. If we are not happy with the ways in which they play their roles in this process, we have the votes to change the situation. Clearly, voters are not being ignored.

Doggedness. That term is synonymous with PMC. While some have tried to paint us as Don Quixote, and we do share his longing for a better world, we are grounded pragmatists who have managed to remain committed to our goal despite the odds against us at other times in history. For that, we should be applauded.

The stars have aligned. The huge impact that money, dark, grey, beige, whatever color you like, is having on judicial races can no longer be denied. It is beginning to fill the headlines. Take the recent decision by State Farm to settle a federal class action suit for $250 million alleging it manipulated a judicial race: it was alleged to have recruited, funded and directed the campaign of a candidate it wanted on the Illinois Supreme Court, a candidate who won that election and then voted to overturn an earlier $1 billion verdict against the company.

In Pennsylvania, in both the 2015 and 2017 judicial elections, the outsized impact of campaign war chests was clear. No matter how brilliant or experienced or ethical the candidate, there will be a public perception of influence where money wins the day that cannot help but undermine confidence in our court system. And we believe that confidence in our judicial system is essential to the future of our democracy.

Through the many challenges of these past 30 years, PMC has remained respectful, attentive, dogged and committed. These are my reflections upon PMC’s 30th anniversary and, implicit in them, my prayer for the future of civil discourse and debate in our country.

Maida R. Milone, milone@pmconline.org, is the president and CEO of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, an education and advocacy organization committed to improving and strengthening the justice system in the commonwealth through public education and judicial reform.