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DN Editorial: Our 'diseased' system

In the judicial-election crap game, democracy throws snake-eyes

LAST Wednesday was Scott DiClaudio's lucky day. He won the political equivalent of the Mega Millions lottery.

As one of 57 candidates seeking the Democratic nomination to Common Pleas Court, DiClaudio picked the lowest number in the lottery held by state election officials to determine ballot position. He will appear in the No. 1 spot for that job in the May 19 primary, making him a virtual shoo-in to win one of the 12 seats in the court being filled this year. He might as well go get measured for a black robe.

It's a stunning reversal in fortune for DiClaudio, who, a few years ago, was put on probation by the state Supreme Court for mishandling a client's appeal of a criminal conviction to an appeals court. DiClaudio failed to file on time.

The state office that disciplines lawyers had recommended that DiClaudio be suspended from practicing law for six months and be put on probation for two years.

The justices lowered that to a three-month suspension, that they stayed, and one year probation, though Justice Max Baer disagreed. He favored the harsher punishment because, he wrote, DiClaudio had a history of disciplinary infractions "with apparently little concern for his continuing transgressions."

In his defense, DiClaudio said he was a solo practitioner with criminal practice who was overwhelmed by the workload. He screwed up, he said, and he regrets it, saying that it was the only one he made in 26 years of practice. He refunded the client's fee and the courts extended the client's deadline for appeal. DiClaudio's probation lasted until 2012.

As we wrote in this space last week, electing judges has been a bad idea for a long time. Now, it's getting ridiculous. It's not an exercise in democracy, it's a crap shoot.

DiClaudio's case is example No. 1 of why the current system must be changed.

Because of his past, he mostly likely will not get the recommendation of the Philadelphia Bar Association, which rates all the judicial candidates.

But, so what? The system isn't about merit, it's about getting ward-leader support or ballot position. Getting first place on the ballot trumps all other considerations, especially in such a crowded field.

If DiClaudio made one mistake, Willie Singletary made a lifetime of them.

He is our Example No. 2 of why our system of electing judges needs to be changed. Singletary, a former Traffic Court judge, was sentenced last week by a federal judge to 20 months in prison for lying to a grand jury about ticket fixing.

It was a scandal that involved enough Traffic Court judges to convince the Legislature to abolish the court.

Singletary asked Judge Lawrence Stengel for mercy, saying he simply wanted to help people. He cited his work as a pastor at a West Philadelphia church.

In turn, Stengel cited Singletary's $11,500 in back traffic tickets and fines, his $19,000 in back child support due and his pattern of lying.

The judge added: "How someone so unqualified for this office can be elected says more to me about the diseased political system that puts this person up for office than it does about Mr. Singletary himself."

The judge got it right. Instead of fostering democracy, our system of electing judges undermines it. Instead of encouraging the best and the brightest to run, it allows the mediocre to prevail.

The system is diseased. Many - including the Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, former governors Ed Rendell, Tom Ridge and Richard Thornburgh, among others - have been advocating for merit selection for years. One proposed bill would deal with appellate courts first, not Common Pleas. Why is this cure such a long time in coming?