At this point in the pandemic, no one wants to spend more time than they have to on Zoom. But that’s what nearly 200 volunteers did since January to investigate and issue ratings for 28 judicial candidates on behalf of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Commission on Judicial Selection and Retention.
Some of these candidates might not be household names, but if they are elected their decisions will have great impact. As we learned during last year’s presidential election, it is crucial to have qualified judges on the bench whose only allegiance is to the rule of law.
That’s why 140 volunteer investigators and 33 other members of the Judicial Commission were proud to have logged extra hours on Zoom over the last few months developing recommendations for candidates vying for the 15 open seats on the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, Philadelphia Municipal Court, and statewide appellate courts. The judicial commission process is robust by design, and this year the bar confronted the challenge of making it fully virtual for the first time.
At the start of the process, each candidate fills out a lengthy questionnaire and provides several writing samples. Five-person investigative teams then conduct at least 20 interviews about each candidate, seeking out friends, colleagues, adversaries, and judges before whom the candidates have appeared. This year, those teams spent more than 500 hours on this endeavor.
The investigative teams present their findings to the commission, which also interviews candidates directly. Commission members then vote by secret ballot, based on a set of 10 established criteria, whether to assign one of three ratings: “Highly Recommended,” “Recommended,” or “Not Recommended.” The “Highly Recommended” rating is reserved for exceptional candidates: 90% of commission members present must vote for such a rating, which is not a given even for those with the strongest resumés.
This year, commission members spent more than 20 hours on Zoom calls conducting interviews, discussing candidates’ qualifications, and issuing recommendations. The commission was aided by the similarly rigorous process of the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Judicial Evaluation Commission. Our commission voted to accept that group’s ratings for appellate court candidates with offices or chambers in Philadelphia.
In addition to members of the bar, the investigative teams and commission both include non-lawyers — community members who volunteer because they believe in the process and feel strongly about electing qualified judges. In addition, the commission includes representatives of the judiciary, including the president judges of the Court of Common Pleas and Municipal Court.
No aspect of this process exists in a vacuum. If new information comes to light at any point that the commission believes could cast doubt on a candidate’s qualifications, that person is invited back to speak with the commission.
This year, a significant portion of our candidate interviews were devoted to discussing our country’s struggles with racial inequality and the need for greater diversity and inclusion at all levels of government, the courts, and law enforcement. As Asian American-Pacific Islander communities increasingly became the target of hate crimes, the commission began incorporating questions about that issue. We expect judicial candidates to be able to think on their feet, and to understand and have compassion for the issues that Philadelphians and Pennsylvanians face each day.
While the commission has given its ratings for 2021, our work is far from over. Judicial elections in the city and state are frequently determined not by qualifications, but by the pure luck of drawing a high ballot position. The association’s political action committee, the Campaign for Qualified Judges, focuses on education to ensure that voters notice Highly Recommended and Recommended candidates even if they happen to be far down the ballot.
In years past, the campaign sent hundreds of volunteers to polling places on Election Day to share the commission’s recommendations, coupled with a digital and social media campaign. We are proud that in 2019, three “Highly Recommended” and four “Recommended” judges were elected, and that not a single “Not Recommended” candidate won their race.
This year, facing the added challenges of a pandemic and the move to mail-in ballots, the campaign will again mount a robust digital effort, in addition to visiting dozens of wards and community groups to share our ratings — and perhaps just as important, to explain the process we use to reach them.
Lauren P. McKenna is chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association and a member of the Judicial Commission. Niki T. Ingram is 2021 chair of the Judicial Commission. For more information on the commission’s ratings: ElectQualifiedJudges.com.