When you head to the polls on May 21, you might know whom you plan to support for mayor and City Council. But chances are you won’t know as much about the 33 judicial candidates on the ballot in Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states that hold partisan elections in all judicial races, from trial judges to Supreme Court justices.

In the Democratic primary this year, three candidates are running for Superior Court, a statewide appellate court; another two for Municipal Court; and 25 for Common Pleas Court. In the Republican primary, three people are running for Superior Court and one for Common Pleas.

After readers asked about the process via Curious Philly — a forum where Inquirer journalists field questions from our readers — we decided to write a guide to how these elections work and why they’re held in the first place.

The basics

Common Pleas Courts, organized into 60 judicial districts across the state, handle all major civil and criminal cases. Municipal Court handles misdemeanor trials and preliminary hearings in felony criminal cases, as well as civil small claims and landlord-tenant disputes.

Superior and Common Pleas Court judges serve 10-year terms, after which they may run for another 10 years in office. These uncontested “retention” elections are held during the general election on a simple yes-or-no vote. Superior Court judges rule on appeals from the trial level in criminal and civil matters and are paid an annual salary of $199,114; Common Pleas judges earn $183,184, and municipal judges $178,946.

How many candidates do you vote for?

There are two open seats on Superior Court, six on Common Pleas, and one on Municipal.

Can the candidates raise money?

Yes, and critics of partisan judicial elections say that’s a problem, because candidates’ campaigns are funded by trial lawyers and others who may end up in their courtroom.

Judicial candidates are prohibited from personally soliciting campaign contributions, though others may raise money on their behalf. Candidates often lend their campaigns tens of thousands of dollars.

In addition to paying the Democratic City Committee $35,000 for a shot at an endorsement, many candidates also shell out campaign funds to political consultants, who work to persuade the city’s 69 Democratic ward leaders to back their clients. The party and ward leaders distribute sample ballots to voters

Ballot position

Perhaps more important than any of those factors is pure luck of the draw on ballot position, determined by a lottery held in Harrisburg.

Here's a portion of a sample ballot you would see if you're voting in the May 21 Democratic primary.
Courtesy Office of the Philadelphia City Commissioners
Here's a portion of a sample ballot you would see if you're voting in the May 21 Democratic primary.

Candidates whose names appear in the first column tend to do better. In 2017, for example, six of the nine winners in the Democratic primary for Common Pleas Court were in the first column. There were 27 candidates in the field.

Are the candidates qualified?

Candidates must be members of the state bar to be eligible for a judgeship, except for the minor courts, such as district judges, who handle initial appearances and smaller cases.

The Philadelphia Bar Association investigates candidates and rates them as “highly recommended,” “recommended,” or “not recommended.”

The bar rated six Common Pleas candidates as “not recommended," and gave the same distinction to one Municipal candidate. Separately, the Pennsylvania Bar Association rated three Superior Court candidates “not recommended.” Some candidates have listed their qualifications in questionnaires for PhillyJudges.com.

Where do they stand on the issues?

It’s hard to say. Judicial candidates are allowed to express their personal opinions. But they may not “make any statement that would reasonably be expected to affect the outcome or impair the fairness of a matter pending or impending in any court,” according to the state Code of Judicial Conduct.

Some left-leaning groups have asked candidates where they stand on issues like eliminating cash bail and scaling back the use of probation and parole.

Why do we elect judges?

Pennsylvania’s partisan election of judges dates back to 1850, when voters approved a constitutional amendment moving away from an appointment system. There were minor tweaks over the years, and in 1968 voters approved retention elections for sitting judges. This was designed to insulate them from political considerations on the bench.

A 1969 referendum asked voters whether they wanted statewide judges elected or appointed, and a majority stuck with the status quo.

In 1988, a blue-ribbon commission established by Gov. Bob Casey called for the appointment of appellate judges and allowing voters in individual counties to decide whether to continue to hold partisan elections for trial judges. The panel found that elections were particularly problematic in large counties like Philadelphia, where more than a dozen judges had been entangled in a bribery scandal involving gifts from Roofers Union officials.

The proposed changes were not adopted by the legislature, and subsequent efforts to pick judges based on merit have yet to succeed.

Locally, there was one minor victory for reformers in recent years. Amid allegations of rampant corruption in Philadelphia Traffic Court, voters approved a ballot initiative abolishing it.

What’s the latest proposal?

Lawmakers in Harrisburg are considering a constitutional amendment that would rely on a bipartisan citizens commission — composed of lawyers and non-lawyers chosen by the governor and legislative leaders — to recommend qualified judges for appellate courts.

The governor would choose nominees from that list, and they would need to be confirmed by the Senate. Judges would serve for four years and then face retention elections for a 10-year term.

The legislature would have to pass the resolution in consecutive two-year sessions, at which point the question would go to voters in a referendum.

The House Judiciary Committee advanced the measure on a party-line vote Tuesday, with Republicans supporting it and Democrats opposed. The measure would not affect lower courts.

Similar legislation advanced to the House floor last session but ultimately died.

What’s the resistance to merit selection?

It can be hard to get anything done in Harrisburg, even more so when it involves amending the constitution.

Maida Milone, executive director of the advocacy group Pennsylvania for Modern Courts, said that unlike issues such as health care, judicial reform doesn’t have a natural constituency.

In addition, “there is this perception that changing to an appointment system is somehow taking the vote away from the people, and legislators don’t want to be accused of doing that,” Milone said.

But she noted that voters would have to approve the change. “We’re not doing anything except giving voters the opportunity to say, ‘You know what, in these statewide races, I don’t have a clue, and I don’t feel equipped to make a decision about who’s going to be a great appellate judge.’"