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DN Editorial: You Be the Judge

Why not, seems like everybody else is - and strangling the election process

Philly Municipal Court Judges Dawn Segal  and Joseph O'Neill have been suspended from hearing cases while their conduct is examined by the state's Judicial Conduct Board.
Philly Municipal Court Judges Dawn Segal and Joseph O'Neill have been suspended from hearing cases while their conduct is examined by the state's Judicial Conduct Board.Read more

ELECTING JUDGES has been a bad idea for a long time. Now, it is getting to be ridiculous.

Voters going to the polls on May 19 to vote for mayor will first have to make their way through a long roster of state and local judicial candidates for everything from the state Supreme Court to Philadelphia's Municipal Court.

As of yesterday, there were 10 candidates running for the Democratic nomination for the three state appellate courts - Supreme, Superior and Commonwealth.

There were 57 candidates running for the Democratic nomination for 12 vacancies on Common Pleas Court, in Philadelphia, which handles major civil and all felony cases.

There are 33 candidates running for the Democratic nomination for three vacancies on Municipal Court, which handles lesser crimes and minor civil cases.

This huge batch of candidates makes the election process a bad joke. It's not an exercise in democracy, it's a crap shoot.

In races where voters can't be expected to know anything about the candidates, ballot position often determines who wins and loses.

If you are one of the 57 candidates for Common Pleas Court, and you draw a No. 1 ballot position, you might as well go out and buy a black robe.

Some candidates hedge their bets by filing petitions for both Common Pleas and Municipal Court. If they get good ballot position for Common Pleas, they will withdraw as a candidate for Municipal Court, and vice versa.

The drawing for ballot positions will be held Wednesday at the Department of State, in Harrisburg. Fittingly, they use numbered pingpong balls, just like in the lottery.

Once ballot position is determined, a number of candidates - who did poorly in the lottery - probably will drop out.

But, that still will leave us with a field of candidates who are, for the most part, total unknowns. There has to be a better way to do it. We should, at least for state appeals courts and the courts in big cities, have the governor nominate and the Senate confirm judges, just as is done in the federal system.

Critics say that would take the power out of the hands of the people. But, democracy works only if there is an informed citizenry, not one taking stabs in the darkness of a polling booth, voting for candidates because their names sort of sound familiar.

The appointment process would not remove selection from the politics - heaven knows, senators and governors are politicians, too. But it would let us add an element of quality control - assuming the governor uses a panel of legal experts and lay people to vet potential candidates.

No one can argue that the current system is producing better judges. For a fresh example, we offer the sad case of three Municipal Court judges who appear ready to be thrown off the bench by the state Supreme Court for judicial misconduct.

Judge Joseph Waters recently pleaded guilty to trying to get two other judges to intervene in cases involving political backers and friends. He was sentenced to two years in prison.

The two judges whom Waters called were Dawn Segal and Joseph O'Neill. They were not charged in the case, but the state's judicial code prohibits such "ex parte" discussions. Their cases are before a judicial discipline court, which could - and, we believe, should - remove them from the bench.

This is a sad comment on the electoral system that put these men and this woman on the bench. Justice won't be served until it is changed.