Becoming a judge in Philadelphia is not easy - or cheap.

First, you have to raise money - as much as $250,000 if possible. Then you have to pay money. Ward leaders, mayoral campaigns and political groups all have their hands out.

And then the candidates have to get the politicians to support them - especially by putting their names on the all-important sample ballots handed out to voters on Election Day.

"It's a tough process," said South Philadelphia ward leader Terry Gillen, who said she sympathized with judicial candidates trying to maintain integrity. "It's a very tough line for them to walk. They're in a very, very difficult position."

In the final week before Tuesday's primary, 17 candidates are crisscrossing the city in a bid to shore up enough votes to fill four vacancies on the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. Though the final vote comes in November, the top four finishers in the Democratic primary decide the race.

"Competition is intense, and everybody is trying to get on as many ballots as possible," said candidate Ellen Green-Ceisler, a lawyer who has wanted to be a judge for nearly two decades.

Newly filed campaign-finance reports show that would-be judges are digging into their own pockets, and that relatives, lawyers, law firms, unions and average individuals are donating, too.

Through their campaigns, the candidates are spending the money on consultants and contributions to wards, Democratic clubs, mayoral campaigns, fund-raisers, and other political candidates.

"It does become an expensive proposition," said Mike Erdos, a former prosecutor who has raised $258,000 - most of it from himself and family.

The money is needed for advertising, signs, leaflets and - if funding is sufficient - billboards and TV ads. But a big chunk goes for printing those critical sample ballots - and for the party workers who will give them out at the polls.

"I'm writing out checks left and right," said Green-Ceisler, who has put up $75,000 of her own money and gotten a loan from her former husband to augment other contributions.

Politicians say that they're supporting qualified candidates - and that the process is an ancient rite of city politics. It's also getting more expensive.

"Money talks," lamented Lynn Marks, who heads Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts and has been pushing for years for judges to be appointed rather than elected.

In the early 1990s, candidates endorsed by the Democratic Party paid $25,000 to their party's city committee for the primary and general elections. The money was earmarked for the printing of the ballot. This year, the fee is $35,000; in return, the candidate gets onto the Democratic City Committee sample ballot.

In the 1991 mayoral primary, court candidates paid mayoral campaigns $6,500 for the privilege of appearing on those campaigns' sample ballots. This year, candidates said, State Rep. Dwight Evans is asking for $10,000, and U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah's campaign wants $20,000.

Maurice Daniel, Evans' campaign manager, said candidates would get their name not just on the sample ballot handed out at the polls, but on one mailed to homes across the city. "There's a value attached to that," Daniel said.

Solomon Jones, communications director for the Fattah campaign, said that the judicial candidates benefited from tapping into a big field operation, and that their money, in turn, helped defray costs.

"It's mutually beneficial," said Jones, who said he could not confirm the $20,000 figure.

Current and former judicial candidates paint a surreal portrait of the election process as a series of uncomfortable situations. Even though the fund-raising is left to others, many expressed discomfort with the notion of raising money from lawyers who could end up with cases in front of them. They were uneasy, too, about paying homage - and money - to ward leaders and other party workers.

Along the way, a few informal rules become apparent: Don't be too intellectual or too corporate lest you appear snooty. Downplay any experience as a federal prosecutor, because nobody likes those corruption-hunting feds. And hope for a prominent spot on the ballot so voters don't have to search through the crowded field to find your name.

Gillen, the 30th Ward leader, said ward leaders generally paid to print their own sample ballots, and there are other expenses, too. Committee people and workers who work outside the polls expect about $100 to work on Election Day, she said.

Winning an election, Gillen said, is "mostly an inside game," so judicial candidates really need the help of ward leaders.

"The system's got pluses and minuses," she said. "The minus is that it feels icky. On the other hand, the plus is I know many, many judges who say they are glad they had to run. It made them understand the city in a way they wouldn't have otherwise."

But public-policy groups say judicial candidates should not have to go through such money-raising and groveling.

"It's beyond unseemly. It's downright wrong," said Zack Stalberg, who heads the Committee of Seventy, which monitors elections and supports a system of appointing judges based on merit.

Marks said the need for money was so acute that some candidates even mortgaged their houses to finance their campaigns.

"Some lawyers want to be a judge so badly that they're willing to suffer financially," said Marks, whose group supports merit selection of judges.

So what about being a judge makes lawyers so willing to grovel, raise gobs of money, and endure an exhausting campaign season?

The job comes with a salary of about $152,000, a 10-year term with the promise of a less-difficult retention election, an attractive state pension - and the honor of being called "Your Honor."

While Erdos took a short break yesterday when his wife gave birth to their second child, he and other candidates said there was still plenty to do.

"I'm just running around trying to solidify relationships and meet as many people as I possibly can and organize volunteers for Election Day," said lawyer Alice Beck Dubow, one of several candidates at a forum Tuesday night at the Bible Way Baptist Church in West Philadelphia.

Green-Ceisler said all the candidates were pretty stressed this week. "Everybody's got a lot of money tied up, a lot of time," she said.

Her big fear, she said, is that so many sample ballots will be handed out at the polls that voters will just toss them all.

Green-Ceisler has vowed to do whatever she can to get voters familiar with her. By Wednesday morning, she said, "I'm either going to be a winner and broke or a loser and broke. I'd much prefer to be a winner."

Check out judicial candidates' answers to an Inquirer Editorial Board questionnaire at http://go.philly.com/judges. There, you can also hear a podcast of a debate among candidates for the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas and read the board's judicial endorsements in all area races.

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To read the recommendations of the Philadelphia Bar Association's Commission on Judicial Selection and Retention, go to http://go.philly.com/judicial

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Contact staff writer Emilie Lounsberry at 215-854-4828 or elounsberry@phillynews.com.