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‘Magic seats’ create new Philly judges who don’t even have to campaign. Here’s how it works.

Magic seats happen when incumbent judges up for a retention vote withdraw from the general election ballot.

State Sen. John Sabatina, a Northeast Philadelphia Democrat, is said to be near the top of the list for candidates to be placed on the November ballot to replace judges who opt to not stand for retention.
State Sen. John Sabatina, a Northeast Philadelphia Democrat, is said to be near the top of the list for candidates to be placed on the November ballot to replace judges who opt to not stand for retention.Read

It’s “magic seat” season in Philadelphia, when the city’s Democratic Party gets to conjure up new judges from thin air.

And Clout hears State Sen. John Sabatina Jr. of Northeast Philly is near the top of the list for a can’t-lose 10-year term on Common Pleas Court. That could set off a fight for Sabatina’s Senate seat. We’ll come back to that.

Magic seats happen when incumbent judges up for a retention vote withdraw from the general election ballot. Three Common Pleas judges — Robert Rebstock, Gary Glazer, and James Murray Lynn — and Municipal Court Judge Gerald Kosinski have filed to drop off the ballot.

Judge Mark Moore, now serving an appointment to Common Pleas Court that expires in January, “is a definite” for a magic seat to stay on the bench, party Chair Bob Brady said. Moore ran unsuccessfully for judge in this year’s primary with the party’s backing.

Brady said he hears another Common Pleas judge and a Municipal Court judge up for retention this year may also drop out by the Sept. 2 deadline. The party has until Sept. 13 to name replacement candidates and, because Democrats dominate in Philly, they’re unlikely to lose.

Magic seats, sometimes called “golden tickets,” draw a lot of interest. The paycheck helps explain why.

A Common Pleas judge annual salary is $186,665 — almost $1.9 million for a full 10-year term. A Municipal Court annual salary is $182,346 — just over $1 million for a six-year term.

All that comes with no need to campaign, no dialing for dollars from supporters, no doling out street money for ward leaders. Judicial candidates have been known to sink hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money into races. How nice if you can skip all that.

Moore told Clout he can’t comment on politics because he’s a judge. Sabatina didn’t respond to Clout’s hails.

We also hear there’s interest from Henry Sias, who ran for judge in 2017 and 2019 and works for the state Superior Court; Monica Gibbs, assistant general counsel at the Delaware River Port Authority; James Eisenhower, who twice ran for state attorney general and now serves on the Judicial Board of Discipline; Vincent Melchiorre, who served two appointments as a judge and ran for the post in 2015 and 2017; and attorney Leanne Litwin.

Sias declined to comment. Melchiorre and Litwin did not respond. Gibbs was unavailable for comment. Eisenhower confirmed his interest.

State Rep. Martina White, chair of the Republican City Committee, didn’t respond when asked if her party will make a play for magic seats. The Republicans had no candidates for local judgeships this year.

What becomes of a Northeast Philly seat?

If Sabatina wins a judicial seat in November, he would resign from the State Senate in January, which would prompt a special election. Sabatina won the 5th District seat in a 2015 special election and secured a second full term last year with no Republican challenger.

Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district, 61% to 25.5%, with 13.5% registered as independents or with smaller parties. The city’s Democratic and Republican Parties would select special-election candidates. The winner would immediately take office.

Clout hears Sean Dillon, a retired state Auditor General’s Office employee and Democratic leader of Ward 66A in the far Northeast, has expressed an interest in the seat. He didn’t respond to Clout.

A pair of Democrats — State Rep. Ed Neilson of the 174th District and State Rep. Mike Driscoll of the 173rd District — told Clout they’re interested in the seat. State Rep. Kevin Boyle, a Democrat in the 172nd District who lost to Sabatina in a close 2016 primary, said he’s not looking at another run.

The big question: All this is set in motion while map-makers are redrawing legislative lines in the decennial redistricting process. Could they erase or chop up the 5th District, knowing the incumbent is on his way out?

Chris Christie jabs at Phil Murphy about vacation

In keeping with being a millionaire ex-Goldman Sachs exec, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy spent the last week recharging at his 23-room Italian villa.

Pundits had plenty to say, including former Gov. Chris Christie, who knows a thing or two about controversial vacations.

”The fact that we’re sitting here in Morris County, New Jersey, and he’s sitting in Italy should tell you a little bit how seriously the governor takes his job,” Christie told a gathering of North Jersey Republicans at a country club, according to Insider NJ.

He said Murphy’s decision to jet-set during an election year while coronavirus cases are surging was “sending a message.”

Christie noted Murphy’s family could have vacationed at the governor’s beach house instead — the same one the Christies visited during Beachgate, when the 2017 government shutdown closed state beaches to the commoners.

There was also that time the Christies spent a weekend in Jordan as guests of King Abdullah. And the time he was campaigning for president in New Hampshire while his state flooded.

“I don’t know exactly what you expect me to do,” he said at a town hall. “Go down there with a mop?”

Murphy’s staff says it’s the governor’s first vacation since the pandemic began. But it’s not the first time Murphy has taken heat for his $7.3 million summer home: In 2018, reporters had to catch him boarding a plane before he admitted he was heading to Italy.

Clout provides often irreverent news and analysis about people, power, and politics.