The upcoming May 21 primary promises to be ground-breaking for a number of reasons. The sheer number of candidates for City Council – more than 50 -- is notable, as are the number of candidates running for less well known offices. To help voters better understand the functions of some of these offices as well as what is at stake, this special “Primary School “ editorial series will introduce you to the key issues, offices, and players.
This week: Judicial races.
On the ballot: Voters will fill a total of nine vacancies in three courts. Each voter will choose: two judges for the Superior Court (an appellate court) from three Democrats and three Republicans; six judges for the court of Common Pleas (a trial court that includes a division that contains family court) from 25 Democrats and one Republican; and one Municipal Court judge (handling criminal and civil cases of limited scope, including traffic) from two Democrats running. Superior and Common Pleas judges are elected for 10-year terms, while municipal court judges are elected for six-year terms.
Overview: Traditionally, judges’ elections are low information races that are ultimately decided primarily by ballot position and the support of the Democratic Party -- for which candidates pay as much as $35,000. The lack of information is compounded by the fact that judges must show restraint in campaigning on their views and positions. A coalition of organizations that helped elect progressive district attorney Larry Krasner hosted a “judge the judges” candidate forum recently. Phillyjudges.com is a website intended to provide information. The Philadelphia Bar Association surveys candidates on their ethical and professional backgrounds and publishes a three-tier rating. Even though the Bar’s rating is perhaps the only authoritative source of information, it doesn’t endorse individual candidates; rather, it gives them ratings of “highly recommended,” “recommended,” and “not recommended.”
The stakes: Judges have tremendous discretion in both criminal and civil matters. The First Judicial District, the organizing body of courts in Philadelphia administered by judges, can influence policy. For example, in the fall, the FJD rescinded its policy of withholding bail fees from defendants that showed up in court or even had the charges against them dropped. Similarly, over the summer Mayor Jim Kenney was under pressure to end the arrest data sharing agreement between the city and Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- an agreement the court was party to but didn’t communicate their own position. Also notable: Family court judges are assigned from the Common Pleas Court. Those judges are the ones who remand children to centers like the recently closed Glen Mills.
The upshot: Judges at all levels have the power to directly impact many lives. The fact that they get their jobs via elections that run on partisan politics and money is deeply disturbing.