The Philadelphia Municipal Court has been called the gateway to the criminal justice system - even if it is a threshold most people hope never to cross. Every city criminal case, from the mundane to the notorious, receives its first review by a judge in this court. In the May 15 primary, voters will nominate candidates to fill two vacancies.

It's important to elect judges who are qualified and seasoned and who demonstrate the right temperament to act as gatekeepers in Municipal Court. As one veteran law enforcement officer describes the challenge, the court is a place where a judge has to "decide whether someone's a bad guy, or a guy who had a bad day."

That observation comes from JOSEPH C. WATERS JR., one of two Democratic candidates who stand out in a field of five contenders. Waters, 54, is a 21-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department, where he rose to the rank of captain and investigated allegations of police misconduct. He went on to complete his undergraduate and law degrees at Temple University, spending time in England as a Fulbright scholar.

During a 12-year law career, Waters has handled a variety of civil matters and some criminal-defense work. The former Vietnam-era Marine has run a solo practice since 2004, and teaches at the city's community college.

Waters' career path might remind voters of another former cop and Municipal Court veteran - Seamus P. McCaffery, now a well-known state Superior Court judge. In fact, that's a pretty good recommendation.

As an attorney for more than 25 years - mostly as a public defender in Philadelphia - JOYCE EUBANKS well knows the inside of a City Hall courtroom. Eubanks, 58, also stays in touch with community concerns, coaching high school students in the city's annual mock trial competition and staying involved with numerous civic causes. She's sure enough a Democratic City Committee insider, yet Eubanks has the credentials to serve well on Municipal Court.

For more on the candidates for Municipal Court, go to http://go.philly.com/judges.