US Supreme Court in Washington DC in bright sunlight
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‘Tis the season for candy canes, snowstorms and end-of-the-year roundups. Court reform in 2013 hasn’t often been front-page news, but there have been a number of important developments. Although some followed scandal, others were the result of hard work by judges, lawyers and lawmakers.

Below are some notable examples of statewide court-reform policy developments in 2013.

The Conviction of Joan Orie Melvin

In February, then-Justice Joan Orie Melvin was convicted of campaign corruption for using her judicial staff to work on her 2003 and 2009 campaigns for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. She was sentenced to three years of house arrest with the requirement that she write an apology to her family, staff and Pennsylvania judges on the front of a picture of her in handcuffs. She appealed her conviction and the apology note portion of her sentence. In November, the Superior Court stayed the apology note requirement, pending her appeal.

Orie Melvin’s conviction significantly impacted Pennsylvania. Now-Justice Correale F. Stevens was appointed to her seat on the court, bringing the court up to full capacity after months of operating with only six justices. It also led to increased public discussion about the urgent need for ethics and judicial selection reforms.

Philadelphia Traffic Court Restructuring

Nine judges were indicted on federal criminal charges related to ticket-fixing and rampant favoritism in Philadelphia Traffic Court. Three defendants have pleaded guilty and the remaining defendants will face trial in 2014.

Following the indictments, state Sen. Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, introduced two bills providing for the restructuring of Traffic Court, both of which passed easily. SB 333 is a constitutional amendment that removes all mention of Traffic Court from the state constitution. This bill must pass in another legislative session and then be approved in a public referendum. The earliest this could be implemented is 2015.

SB 334 transfers Traffic Court duties to Municipal Court and creates a temporary Traffic Division in Municipal Court. The bill also provides for the appointment of hearing examiners to hear cases and provides that any vacancies on Traffic Court will not be filled.

Currently, the transfer of the responsibilities of Traffic Court to the newly created Traffic Division of Municipal Court is under way. Hearing officers will be hired soon, increased ethics training for staff has begun and Administrative Judge Gary Glazer continues to work with the court and the community to increase public confidence in the courts.

New Judicial Ethics Rules Proposed

This year, a Supreme Court ad hoc committee chaired by Superior Court Judge Anne E. Lazarus, and a task force of the Pennsylvania Bar Association chaired by Abraham C. Reich and Bridget E. Montgomery, both proposed updated judicial ethics rules.

Both sets of proposed rules reorganize the current seven canons of judicial conduct into four canons, based on the American Bar Association’s Model Code of Judicial Conduct. The proposals cover all the existing rules, but also include comments on electronic and social media, increased guidance on recusal, and clarification on the rules for judicial candidates.

Although the proposals are similar, there are some differences. The PBA recommends restrictions in hiring practices, including avoiding nepotism and barring judges from appointing individuals to positions if they have contributed more than $2,500 to the judge’s campaign within the last two years. Its proposed rules also tighten disqualification rules, including adding the requirement that judges disqualify themselves if a party or lawyer before them has contributed more than $2,500 as an individual or $5,000 as an organization in support of or against the judge’s campaign. The Lazarus committee considered, but ultimately rejected, both the hiring restrictions and the specific amounts for disqualification.

The Supreme Court is currently considering these proposals, which are an important step in ensuring that judges are held to the highest ethical standards.

Merit Selection of Statewide Judges

The movement for merit selection of statewide judges garnered widespread support this year from policymakers, civic groups, media outlets across the state, and the general public. Four former Pennsylvania governors came together in the spirit of bipartisan leadership and held a press conference emphasizing their support for merit selection of appellate court judges. The former governors also sent a letter to all legislators and Gov. Tom Corbett urging them to move forward on the issue.

A bill was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, and in the House by Reps. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, and Brian Sims, D-Philadelphia. Both bills are currently before the judiciary committees of the respective chambers.

Mandatory Judicial Retirement

Mandatory judicial retirement was considered by both the legislature and the courts this year. Currently, Pennsylvania judges must retire at the end of the year they turn 70, although they may continue to serve as senior judges until age 78.

Several judges filed suit in state and federal court arguing that mandatory judicial retirement is a violation of equal protection and due process guarantees under both the Pennsylvania and U.S. constitutions. Both the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania upheld the mandatory retirement provision. The plaintiff-judges plan to appeal the federal court decision.

Constitutional amendments also were introduced to eliminate or increase the mandatory judicial retirement age. HB 79, which increased the retirement age to 75, sponsored by Rep. Kate Harper, R-Montgomery, passed both legislative chambers with wide bipartisan support. The bill will be considered again in the 2015-16 legislative session and then go before the voters for approval. The earliest that this change could take place would be in 2015.

Other Court Improvements and Reform

In addition, courts across Pennsylvania were busy improving the court user experience. A few examples include: translating court forms to make the experience easier for individuals with limited English proficiency; successfully using diversion programs such as Veterans Court, Drug Court and Project Dawn to rehabilitate offenders and decrease court costs; and working together with bar associations and community groups to hold access to justice hearings across the state.

Although Pennsylvania’s courts are not perfect, the enormous efforts of judges, lawyers and lawmakers to improve the system are a testament to the true heart of the Keystone State.

Lynn A. Marks is the executive director, and Suzanne R. Almeida is the program director, of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a nonpartisan, nonprofit court reform organization. Visit www.pmconline.org or email staff@pmconline.org to learn more.