Stretton, who is one of the few Philadelphia lawyers willing to say publicly what he thinks about our judges, does not, to put it mildly, find this amusing, or conducive to a sober presentation of a case: “It’s just insanity.”
And then, also on Common Pleas, there is Leslie Fleisher, who many lawyers say is dismissive and mean. And Frank Palumbo, a nice man who, attorneys aver, can barely follow what goes on in his courtroom, let alone control it.
“Some of my colleagues on the bench,” one Philadelphia court official told me, “I wouldn’t hire to cut my grass.”
All of which raises the question: How do people like this end up on the bench in the first place? We know the answer, of course: We elect them. But if you’ve ever voted in a judicial election in Philadelphia (or anywhere in Pennsylvania), you also know that in most cases, you’re voting for little more than a name. Back in the ’70s, a candidate for Common Pleas named William Marutani did well in South Philadelphia, an Italian scoring with the Italian-American neighborhood. Except that Marutani wasn’t Italian — he was Japanese.
Which is why the real power when it comes to electing judges in Philadelphia lies with the city’s ward leaders and consultants like Sabatina. And lately, the cost of getting them on your side has been rising. Much of the $550,000 that Mike Erdos spent in the 2007 Common Pleas election went to consultants like The Kid, who is also a ward leader in the Northeast, and, in $1,000 and $2,000 chunks, to most of the other ward leaders in the city. This is ethically dubious, but not, alas, illegal.
Surprisingly, given what they have to go through to get there, some judges in Philadelphia are quite good: smart and experienced and thoughtful and tough. Judicious.
It’s a mixed bag — virtually everyone agrees on that. But you begin to wonder, when you look at the way we elect them — and the ever-increasing wads of money it requires — whether men and women potentially worthy of the honor of becoming judges might lose patience with a process controlled by the likes of The Kid.
MIKE ERDOS IS an intense, very tall ex-semi-professional basketball player who attended Yale Law and worked in the city’s D.A. office for a decade. He talks convincingly about wanting to become a judge to serve, and early returns on his judicial work among lawyers and colleagues is favorable. He has nonetheless been accused of buying his seat on the bench.
But putting the blame on Erdos’s profligate spending seems beside the point — he didn’t create the system. Once he was running, hanging out there with no job, a second child on the way, palms so willing to be greased — legally greased … Erdos comes from money; his family was more than willing to help him out. But it seemed like a horrendous way to become a judge. Veteran judges say it takes two or three years to get the sordid process of running out of your system. Erdos is only a year in.
To understand what’s happened — why money and consultants might have more to do with Mike Erdos becoming a judge than anything else — we have to understand how Bob Brady lost control of the process.