by Joe Shaheeli
While Administrative Judge of Philadelphia Family Court Kevin Dougherty will not yet comment on his possible candidacy for the State Supreme Court in the next primary, his brother Union leader John J. Dougherty’s towels are already waving he will be a candidate.
So the odds as we call it, based on waving towels and hot rumors, are ten to one Judge Kevin’s name will appear on the next primary ballot to fill an existing Justice vacancy.
Normally, this would not be accompanied by much fanfare, since brother John knows what’s good for brother Kevin, even if the two are publicly not on the same page at this writing. It is to be a happening in the conscientious career of Judge Kevin.
But mention the name of John Dougherty in the same sentence with Judge Kevin and alarms have begun sounding among the groups pushing for merit selection, a long contentious struggle in this state. Its proponents are pushing for the end of popular voting for all PA judges and especially state Supreme Court justices. They see Merit Selection, “by selected committees dominated by barristers” as the “surest way” toward an unbiased, unsusceptible to political winds judiciary.
Why the alarm? Obviously, for the fact John Dougherty has mastered the art of PAC creation, with a number under his belt, and the ability to raise millions of dollars for those PACS. Money talks and bulls_ _ _ walks when it comes to who will win any election anywhere.
Always a contentious debate, with plenty of pros and cons on each side, competitive election or merit selection is on every debate agenda in the Commonwealth.
Competitive Elections are, adherents say, the most democratic way to make judges accountable to the public. But competitive elections have many problems, and critics, cite their heavy reliance on special interest money tops their argument list. Pennsylvania is one of 22 states using competitive elections to fill state supreme court seats, at least some of the time.
Appointment/Retention Systems, also known as “merit selection,” rely on bipartisan nominating commissions to put slates of candidates before the governor, who then picks from that list. Voters then periodically vote on whether to retain these judges. While this greatly reduces special interest money, critics call these systems undemocratic. Twenty four states use bipartisan commissions to help choose supreme court justices.
Four states have adopted public financing, as a middle ground, to combat special-interest money while still conducting state supreme court elections. But public financing has come under attack and was gutted or inadequately funded in two of these states in 2011. Still, public financing does reduce pressure on candidates to raise money, and boosts public confidence in elected judges.
In 2002, North Carolina became the first state to provide full public financing for judicial campaigns. An in-depth study concluded in 2009 that North Carolina’s plan “has reduced the influence of private contributors and helps insulate judges from politics.”
Since Pennsylvania has had chronic shortfalls in its budgets, such funding is nowhere on the horizon now or in the distant future.
So, if John wants brother Kevin to run for a Supreme Court Justice vacancy, candidates of a similar mind need to realize he will have a well-funded treasury at his disposal. They could well opt to pick another time. That also fuels the case for those pushing election by selection.
The seat up for contention right now is held by Justice Correale F. Stevens, who was appointed by Governor Tom Corbett to replace Justice Joan Orie Melvin who resigned effective May 1, 2013 following conviction on public corruption charges involving the illegal use of judicial staff in her unsuccessful 2003 and her successful 2009 election campaigns for the Supreme Court. Justice Stevens was confirmed by the Pennsylvania State Senate on June 30, 2013 and sworn in on July 30, 2013. Justice Stevens will serve through the end of 2015, when a new Justice can be elected.
The Pennsylvania Supreme court consists of seven justices each elected to ten-year terms. Supreme court judicial candidates may run on party tickets. The justice with the longest continuous service on the supreme court automatically becomes Chief Justice. Supreme Court justices, like other Pennsylvania judges, are subject to mandatory retirement when they turn 70 years old. After the ten-year term expires, a statewide YES/NO vote for retention is conducted. If the judge is retained, he/she serves another ten-year term. If the judge is not retained, the governor, subject to the approval of the State Senate, appoints a temporary replacement until a special election can be held.
As for Kevin Dougherty, his attributes are many. He has the temperament, personality and the brains to more than justify his trek through the court system. The Supreme Court could improve with a justice with his qualifications.
He was elected to Philadelphia Common Pleas court in 2001, finishing first with brother John’s help. He has proven to be a respected trial judge and court administrator.
Judge Kevin gives a look into his history, proudly calling himself a “son of South Philadelphia. I was born in St. Agnes Hospital and carried through the doors of 2145 S. Howard Street. I was now a ‘Second Streeter’. As I grew, I was encircled by the love of family and friends. I learned ‘right’ from ‘wrong’ from my parents, family and neighbors. My formal education was received early by the dedicated Sisters of Mercy at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Elementary School. To me, my childhood was simple and fun. I remember the milestone of being able to finally venture from Howard Street to the Rev. Burke playground (“The Park”) after the first street light was placed on the corner of Second and Jackson.
“Whether it was ‘play streets’ or block parties, I grew to understand the concept of work ethic, pride in self and community. It was not until I took the ‘79’ bus to Bishop Neumann High School that I discovered the ‘world’. One interesting fact was that St. Patrick’s Day was not a national holiday.
“As a result of this experience and the many new South Philadelphians I encountered, I proceeded to obtain a law degree, get married and raise a family. I had the good fortune of being elected a Common Pleas Court judge. In my capacity as Judge, I have been assigned to the Philadelphia Family Court, and now I am humbled by the ability to lead this court and those who enter our system”.
Today, the judge makes his home in the greater Northeast, but never fails to note his South Philadelphia roots.
On February 21, 2013, after four days of deliberation, the jury found Justice Orie Melvin guilty of six of the seven counts brought against her.
On March 25, 2013, Justice Orie Melvin announced that she will resign from the Supreme Court, with an effective date of May 1, 2013.
On May 7, 2013, Judge Neuhaus sentenced Orie Melvin to three years house arrest followed by two years of probation. She will also be required to send a handwritten apology to every judge in the state.