The city's Democratic Party organization invited 27 Philadelphia judges to a buffet breakfast this week and asked them to pay $10,000 each to assure party support when they face yes-or-no retention votes in November, according to judges who attended.
The figure is double what the party asked from sitting judges two years ago.
And the request was reportedly delivered with a warning from the party treasurer, former State Rep. Frank Oliver, that Democratic ward leaders would "cut" - withhold support from - judges who failed to pay, according to several witnesses.
"It's Godfather II," one judge told The Inquirer, comparing the situation to the heavy-handed political pressure that convinced an Atlanta company to walk away from a multimillion-dollar contract with the Philadelphia School District this year.
Like other judges interviewed Thursday, he asked that his name not be disclosed for fear of offending Democratic Party leaders.
U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, the party chairman, invited the 27 judges facing retention votes to the Wednesday-morning breakfast at Finnegan's Wake on Spring Garden Street.
Brady intentionally left the room before Oliver's remarks, to comply with federal restrictions on Brady's fund-raising activities.
Complaints about Oliver's remarks reached him later that day, Brady said, and he tried to reassure judges that none of those facing retention votes would lose party support for not making the requested donation.
"I don't know what was said at the meeting, because I wasn't there," Brady said Thursday. "But I told [Family Court President Judge] Kevin Dougherty and the other judges, whatever they can do in terms of fund-raising is fine. The Democratic Party, for the 25 years I've been there, has never endorsed or unendorsed anybody for monetary reasons. . . . A good-faith effort, that's what the party asks."
Oliver, 89, treasurer for the last five years, did not return calls seeking comment.
For decades, the city's political parties have sought significant contributions from endorsed candidates in competitive judicial elections running against each other in what's usually a crowded field. This year, Democrats asked for $35,000 from each judicial candidate.
The City Committee typically uses money collected from slated candidates for a variety of Election Day expenses, including printing sample ballots, providing transportation to voters, and food and cash payments - known as "street money" - to party workers.
The political toll for judges already on the bench has been relatively low.
Ten years ago, Democrats asked for just $2,000 from Common Pleas Court judges seeking additional 10-year terms on yes-or-no votes. Two years ago, the figure was boosted to $5,000, an amount many judges considered excessive.
The chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, Rudolph Garcia, said he had heard about the breakfast meeting.
"I think it's outrageous that the party is, as I understand it, asking for $10,000 per judge," Garcia said. "I don't see why printing costs for sample ballots should be anywhere near that amount. This is one of the things wrong with our system, and why we shouldn't be electing judges the way we do."
A Bar Association committee evaluates all sitting judges seeking retention. One requirement for a favorable recommendation is that the judges sign a pledge that they will not ask lawyers for campaign contributions. "We think that's unseemly," Garcia said.
To help the sitting judges deal with campaign expenses, the bar raises money through a political action committee, the Campaign for Qualified Judges. Garcia said the PAC had scheduled a fund-raiser for next week but its receipts were "unlikely to be anywhere near the total amount asked by City Committee."
Asked what the sitting judges should do about the party's request, Garcia said, "I think it's very difficult for them. If they were all to stand together and none would make the payment, that would be easy. But if some do and some don't, the ones who don't would be concerned about retribution. It's a judgment they're going to have to make."