justice for sale

interview: helen lavalle

how bad is it?
my state
selecting judges

helen lavelle Lavelle is a Pennsylvania media consultant.
You come from the advertising world, not the political world. You sell products. How do you sell a judge?

I think that the bottom line is that we sell a judge the same way we sell anything else. You have to look at what the benefits to the consumer are. You have to create an atmosphere, visually, verbally, and through a variety of media which helps the voter realize who this person is--to respond to that person from an emotional point of view, with positive conviction. And bottom line is to have them then act on that conviction by pulling a lever.

Emotional connection?

Well, the bottom line is that, in any election, I believe the decision is made in the last ten days. A lot of it is name and face recognition. . . So visually, verbally. . . everything that we do is about just making sure that they remember that name and that that person deserves to have someone pull the lever for them.

A person who is not qualified, [but] who has enough money, who has a real smart political handler,  can end up sitting in a judicial seat who has absolutely no business being there. . . Let's expand on your particular candidate. You've got a sitting judge who is a completely non-political person. How do you sell him?

On one hand it's more difficult for us because he's not a politician, and on the other hand it was wonderful for us to have a candidate like him. . . He was appointed judge nine months ago. He's never run for political office, no one knows him, so to get somebody to know him ends up being a greater challenge. . . We would be talking about [him] as if we were launching a product, which in fact we were. . . We had to overcome the judge's own personal humility. And that was quite something to go through with him.

We're in the process more and more where we're politicizing the judiciary. ..

I'm an advertising professional. You would think that I would not have a problem with the way judicial candidates are elected, but I do. I think that there's something really wrong with the system itself, particularly in the area of campaign spending. That's where I personally have a lot of struggle. Being an advertising professional you would think that I would be in favor of the candidate and a candidate's team coming up with as much money as they possibly could to get the person elected. There's something wrong, because it's either the wealthy or the politically connected who have a competitive advantage. And often times we see extremely qualified candidates hurt, lose because they don't have the money, and they don't have that political machinery behind them. . . The judicial side of our government is something that should be not political and it is.

Are people buying elections?

I haven't a doubt. We've seen it, we've been through it where there is such an exorbitant amount of spending to get somebody elected that there's no way to describe it any other way to me. I really believe that we are in a system where elections can be bought. It's sad.

What is the implication of that in the long run.

I think the bottom line is that people who are qualified, who have everything going for them and for us, end up not being put on a bench, or not put in a public office. And there's something radically wrong and I would like to see it changed. . .

Do the voters who are voting for judge really know who they're voting for?

The answer to that question is absolutely not, they don't. The voters, it's unfortunate, but I believe that the voters do not oftentimes know who they're voting for. . . Oftentimes we'll see a prosecutor who is running for a judicial seat and they have a competitive advantage on one hand because the voter may understand who that person is. . . The only way that we have currently to educate the voter is through the candidates political campaign. And is that an adequate way for us to be educated? No it isn't. So people I'm sure walk out of the voting booth, after having voted for a jurist, pull a lever based on whatever information--good, bad, the way a person's name is pronounced--and they don't know the first thing about that candidate or whether that candidate is even qualified. . . We have to tell our candidates all the time--'we don't have enough time to educate the voters on all of your qualifications.'

So you go for an emotional response.

There's no question that I go for an emotional response. . . Am I concerned with having the most cinematic music that I can possibly have behind a radio spot? Am I concerned about what the light looks like when our candidate walks into a court room? Am I concerned about how he looks--that we present him the way he should be seen by the voters as a dignified, wonderful, humble, hard-working, incredible, deserving-of-your-vote kind of guy. Yes, I do. They are emotional angles that I go in. And yes, people do vote based on that. . . Soup is sold from an emotional perspective. An amalgamated widget needs to be sold from an emotional perspective and so does a judicial candidate. . .

Let me read a couple of lines from your ad in today's paper. "Judge Burke, working to enhance quality of life in our area. . . unsurpassed reputation . . holds those accountable for their actions . . concerned about our children's future. I mean none of those are like bell-ringers are they?


It seems like you're desperately trying NOT to say things.

It's tough. . . Can a jurist say that he is going to keep the streets safe? They have. Are they allowed to? They are not. . . I can't tell you how many times [I've seen] jail cell doors slam in a judicial spot. It is inappropriate, not allowed. Is it done? Yes it is. . . They do it because they know in this particular market that people want law and order. Boom. We'll give them law and order. How is it stopped? I don't know the answer to that question. . . We end up having to do a vanilla ad, and a vanilla ad does not grab someone and say--'My god this is the man who should be elected judge.' Bottom line the reason is because there are certain things we can say and there are certain things we cannot. . .

If you gave them the real facts about his legal knowledge and understanding, that just would fall flat, wouldn't work?

The voters would be bored to death with it and that's the bottom line. . . They would just go to sleep and we don't need them to go to sleep, we need them to go and vote. . .

So, basically the only way of really selling a qualified candidate is to tell the folks everything but what the facts are about the legal qualifications of that candidate?

We walk a fine line, we have a responsibility to let the voters know why the man is qualified. . . But we have to let the people know that in an emotional way with all the music and with the wonderful voice over. . .

What you've just said opens the door to people with virtually no real judicial temperament, no measurable resume to qualify because they have enough money and a smart enough consultant.

A person who is not qualified, who has enough money, who has a real smart political handler, can end up sitting in a judicial seat who has absolutely no business being there. . . I would like to believe that it's about time that advertising professionals take a look at what we are doing as well. We need to go inside and say as an industry and say--'first let me make sure that I have the person who deserves to be elected here.' And not take candidates based on how much money they have or how much political clout they will have. Call me naive, I don't care.

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