Pennsylvania Superior Court Judge Judith Olson, seeking a seat on the state’s high court, acknowledged the imperfections of the state’s system for electing appellate judges, but she voiced confidence that with November’s election, the court could restore its tarnished public image and deliver on attorneys’ wishes for speedier opinions.
Judge Olson — who served as the partner in charge of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP’s Pittsburgh office and the leader of the firm’s antitrust practice before moving to the bench in 2008 — told Law360 in a recent interview that her time on the campaign trail exposed her to strong opinions about recent scandals.
Recent high-profile transgressions by Pennsylvania judges include the Luzerne County “kids for cash” scandal and resignations on the Supreme Court — which have led to three concurrent openings on the court for the first time since the early 18th century — over campaign violations and pornography
“A lot of people lack faith in our judiciary, and I don’t blame them,” Judge Olson said. “It’s not only actual impropriety, but even the mere appearance of impropriety is important and critical because judges have to be above reproach. If you’re going to pass judgment on other people, you need to make sure your own house is in order.”
She said that 99 percent of the individuals on all levels of the state court system — from magistrate judges to the high court — were “hardworking, dedicated public servants,” but she agreed that the remaining few had cast a pall on the judiciary.
Olson, a Republican, previously won a statewide election in 2009 to take her seat on the Superior Court after spending a year on the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas via an interim nomination from former Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat. She is one of three Republican nominees seeking to fill one of the three vacancies on the high court in November’s election.
Olson noted that Pennsylvania was one of only six states that still elect judges at every level.
“It seems that the trend is to move away from elections,” she said.
A bipartisan pair of Pennsylvania representatives have introduced legislation that would replace the current system of partisan elections for statewide appellate judges with a merit selection process, after a similar effort went nowhere in the previous legislative session.
Once confirmed by the Senate, judges would sit on the bench for four years before standing for a nonpartisan retention elections. Statewide judges currently face nonpartisan retention elections at the end of their first elected term, which lasts for 10 years.
Judge Olson categorized the proposal, with the inclusion of retention elections, as a “hybrid” system, and emphasized that any change was ultimately in the hands of the public, which would have to vote on a constitutional amendment.
“Certainly it’ll be up to the people of the commonwealth as to whether or not they want to change that. Politics are going to be in either system no matter what. It’s just a different type of politicking — campaigning versus having a committee — and how do you rise to the top of that list that goes to the governor?” she said. “No system is going to be perfect.”
The current system has also attracted concern over the money expected to be spent by candidates in this election. Experts are expecting an influx of money from out-of-state super PACs, not just because of the number of empty seats but also because it is the only Supreme Court election nationwide left in 2015, after Wisconsin held a spring general election for its one opening.
But Judge Olson said that as far as she knew, her campaign has not been approached by any super PACs yet, adding that, like all candidates, she was shielded from direct fundraising activities by a committee.
“I understand the concern about the money, I really do. I have to say, I haven’t seen it, at least in my campaign, and that has not prevented me from being successful,” Judge Olson said. “I think a lot is spoken about the money, but there are many wonderful opportunities to be successful even though you may not be the best funded.”
Judge Olson has been endorsed by groups including the Pennsylvania Troopers Association, the Fraternal Order of Police and the state Republican Party, but she noted that these were more advisements to the groups’ memberships, rather than significant sources of money.
“If I would have some interest group endorsed me and provided significant funds — and again, I don’t expect this — I would have to look very carefully at any case that would come before me from that organization in making a decision,” she said. “When you have people like state troopers saying they endorse you, you can’t recuse from every case where the commonwealth is involved in a criminal case, so you have to kind of weigh these things.”
And while the public sees scandals and eye-popping campaign finance figures — a combined $5 million raised before the May primary alone — attorneys in the state have raised concerns about the speed at which the high court renders decisions.
“It has been slow,” Judge Olson agreed. “If you look what’s been happening in the past couple of years, I think they were unfortunately distracted by things. My hope is that with three new justices and perhaps some stability, I think perhaps they’ll be able to render decisions more promptly.”
She added that the court also handles a wide range of administrative activities in addition to its judicial responsibilities.
“So I don’t think they’re just sitting on a beach reading novels,” Judge Olson said.
The judge noted that she was prepared for the court’s significant administrative burden, which includes overseeing all lower courts in the state, thanks to her time in leadership at Schnader Harrison. There she handled issues like staffing cases, hiring and firing and other human resources matters, meeting budgets, and dealing with insurance and technology decisions.
“All of those issues that impact the running of a law firm are the same kind of issues that the Supreme Court gets,” she said.
Judge Olson flagged her work after the 1998 bankruptcy of Allegheny Health Education and Research Foundation, at its time the largest ever bankruptcy of a health system, as a highlight of her time in practice. There, she represented former CEO Sherif Abdelhak in the various ensuing civil cases and also served as co-counsel in the criminal matters that unfolded.
“I think that was a case that I will always remember as an advocate, that it was a wonderful opportunity to represent an important man in an important case,” she said.
And she said that while she misses the camaraderie and shared experiences that are part of law firm life, there are other things she is glad to have left behind.
“One of the downsides, if there is a downside, to being an appellate judge is that you are sort of isolated,” she said. “You don’t have that interaction, and after 27-28 years of having it, I do miss that.”
“But I don’t miss the late nights getting experts ready for trial the next morning,” she added, laughing.
To read the complete article from Dan Packel here (subscription required).