'THE LAW makes a promise - neutrality," Justice Anthony Kennedy said. "If the promise gets broken, the law as we know it ceases to exist."

The law's promise of neutrality requires judges of outstanding character and integrity - mature, highly qualified public servants who bring knowledge, experience and good judgment to the bench. These are the qualities we need in judges to keep our promise to all who come to the legal system seeking justice.

What do we look for in a judge?

First, a judge must have sufficient legal ability to have earned the respect of lawyers and members of the bench: a high degree of knowledge of legal principles and procedures and the ability to apply them to specific situations. Judges must also show a willingness to learn the skills essential to their judicial duties and an interest in improving judicial procedure and administration. And a judge should have experience that ensures knowledge of the rules of evidence and courtroom procedures.

A judge should have excellent character and integrity. A judge's personal and professional actions should demonstrate consistent adherence to high ethical standards. A judge must be truthful, fair and able to disregard personal prejudices, personalities and partisan political influences so that the decisions made are based solely on the facts of record and the law applicable to those facts.

A judge must demonstrate financial responsibility, personally and professionally. This means that the judge has filed proper tax returns and paid the applicable taxes. And there have been no judgments, liens or bankruptcy proceedings instituted by or against the judge. Financial responsibility demonstrates self-discipline and the ability to withstand pressures that might compromise independence and impartiality.

A judge should possess judicial temperament, including patience, courtesy, impartiality, compassion, fair play, humility, tact, common sense and understanding. This temperament implies, among other things, an absence of arrogance, impatience and arbitrariness. Only then can a judge exercise reason free from passion.

A judge should possess the mental and physical capacity to discharge fully the demanding duties of judicial office.

A judge should have a record of involvement in public service, community affairs, pro bono activities or other volunteer efforts to improve the quality of life of others in the community. A judge should be sensitive to the diversity of the general community and part of the broader community.

Judges need administrative skills to balance the demands of long court lists and complex litigation. These skills are necessary to dispose of cases within a reasonable time without sacrificing the legitimate needs of individual litigants or their counsel.

AJUDGE'S professional life should demonstrate efforts to improve the quality of justice for all. These might include active participation in the work of professional associations.

A judge should demonstrate sound profesional judgment - reliability, diligence, perseverance, common sense and attentiveness. A judge should have good work habits and be able to set priorities for the importance of the tasks to be accomplished.

And a judge must always be faithful to what Learned Hand called "the spirit of liberty." Hand said "the spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias."

Only when it embraces this spirit can the law exercise true neutrality. That depends on good judges. And that is why the Philadelphia Bar Association identifies the most qualified candidates to recommend for judicial election and retention and why we would all do well to follow those recommendations - available at www.philadelphiabar.org - and urge others to do the same. Only in that way can we make the right choices when we vote in the primary election on May 15. *

Jane Leslie Dalton is chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association. Her e-mail is chancellor@philabar.org.