The last year has brought to light something many of us — particularly Black Americans like myself — already knew: the criminal justice system in America is broken. Much of the focus since the death of George Floyd has rightly been on how police interact with Black civilians and other people of color.
Here in Philadelphia, though, it’s time we expand the conversation about criminal justice to include the very entity we rely upon to dole out justice — our court system.
A 2019 report that assessed the culture of the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania, which encompasses the city, documented a “culture of nepotism, mistrust and racial tension” within Philadelphia’s courts. While the court’s governing board itself commissioned the report, it was a full calendar year before it was released to the public.
The report documented a number of concerning facets of our court system’s internal culture, not limited to but including bias against judges who are women of color as well as tension among white judges and staff, including several who believed racism was not a real factor in today’s society. City Council began hearings on the matter last month, and they included comments from two Black female judges who described the experiences of discrimination they have felt on the bench.
That’s an important start to this dialogue.
But voters this year have the power in their hands to help move the conversation into action. In the primary election on May 18, Philadelphians will have an opportunity to elect judges to the First Judicial District — including the Court of Common Pleas as well as the Municipal Court.
As a society, we’re sometimes numb to blatant institutional racism because it is often an unfortunate reality in government, business, and other industries. However, we are a country that proudly pledges “justice for all.”
As an attorney, I can’t help but wonder: If there is so much documented discrimination and bias among court employees, what do defendants experience?
Documented problems of unfairness within the court go beyond racial discrimination. The 2019 report on Pennsylvania’s First Judicial District details a court system rife with nepotism — including hiring, promotions, and salary decisions — as well as conflicts of interest. A court-appointed eviction lawyer who is married to a judge has even presided over evictions, as WHYY reported.
Perhaps the most disappointing finding from the report regarding nepotism was the note that some in positions of power were “deeply aware of its presence and are either unwilling to change it or do not believe they have the capacity to challenge it.”
Our system of choosing judges by partisan political election is often lambasted by reform-minded legislators and activists, and someday that system might change.
In the meantime, this system can be an asset — and an opportunity to elect judges who will work hard to change the culture of the court system from the inside.
It’s clear that there is an issue with the culture of our courts, and it’s not far-fetched to believe that trickles down to how defendants are treated.
This culture won’t change overnight, but voters can send a message to court leadership that the status quo is unacceptable by rejecting candidates for judgeship who won’t commit to working toward a transparent and fair court system that celebrates diverse judges and staff and refuses giving in to an old boy’s network.