Critics Charge Pennsylvania Courts Are Stuck in `Judicial Dark Ages'

Elections of justices don't result in the best getting chosen, they say

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. ``[Voters] are either going to vote party line or vote for the most familiar name.'' Mr. Schotland is the author of a 1985 study that showed a high success rate for candidates with familiar sounding names in low-profile races for state judgeships.

Schotland said having an ethnic name can also be a major factor in a low-profile race. He claimed that a recent black judicial candidate in Cook County, Ill., with an Irish surname, highlighted his name, but did not place his photographs in newspaper ads in predominantly white areas. After winning the election, the candidate ran ads with large photographs of himself thanking voters for their support.

``Elections have also shown that judges are very vulnerable to single-issue voters,'' said Kate Sampson of the American Judicature Society, a Chicago-based group that opposes electing judges. Ms. Sampson cited the controversial removal of California Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and two other anti-death-penalty justices in a 1986 retention election. Low public interest

The race for justice has generated little public interest here. Candidates are prohibited from discussing specific judicial issues during the campaign, so voters have been treated to television ads featuring soft profiles of candidates or blistering attacks on their opponents. One newspaper recently called the race and its three candidates, ``a living argument for merit selection and against electing judges.''

Democratic candidate Russell Nigro has come under heavy criticism for accepting money from the National Rifle Association, the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association and other special interest groups. By mid-September, Nigro, a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge, had raised $735,000 - more than twice as much as his nearest opponent.

Reform advocate Marks said that the increasingly expensive campaigns reduce judicial independence. ``The only people who will contribute to a court race are lawyers or potential litigants and ... they're going to expect something back,'' she said.

State Sen. Craig Lewis (D), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was not optimistic about the chances of reform. The possibility of alienating special interest groups and a lack of public protest, all help to maintain the status quo. ``There's not enough of a force out there to make it worthwhile for legislators to move,'' Senator Lewis said.

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