The Judge Makers

The city’s abuzz about judges who go too easy on hardened criminals. But the problem isn’t just the judges — it’s the shady process they have to go through to get on the bench in the first place. (Pssst … anybody got a few grand to take care of a ward leader?)

ONE DAY IN early March 2007, at the Keystone Building in Harrisburg, there was a lottery drawing. Not for cash, but to decide who would become new Common Pleas judges in Philadelphia. Four slots were open on the city’s highest court, and 27 lawyer-candidates had gotten the thousand signatures required to run. Now it was time to decide ballot position — chits of paper would be pulled from a cardboard box.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of ballot position when it comes to electing judges in Philadelphia. Nothing confirms our ignorance of judicial candidates as much as this: The first name we come to on the ballot is almost always one that is going to win.
Two candidates, Mike Erdos and Linda Carpenter, approached the drawing quite differently. For Erdos, this was a moment of truth. He was 41 years old and unemployed, having quit the D.A.’s office in January to run. His wife was expecting their second child. He had no idea what he would do next if he lost this election. Meanwhile, Carpenter, a longtime litigator who lost a run for judge in ’05, had pretty much made up her mind not to run this time — she didn’t even bother to make the drive to Harrisburg for the drawing. Still, she’d gotten the required signatures and was one of the 27 names that would be drawn. Who knew? Maybe she’d get lucky.
Mike Erdos, it turned out, wasn’t. When he called his pregnant wife and told her his ballot spot — number 11 — she cried. It was not good. He’d be lost in the pack. A couple Philadelphia ward leaders had already taken Erdos aside to tell him, “You can’t do this — you gotta try and get your job back. It’s just not going to work out.” He agreed with them — he was probably going to lose.
For Carpenter, though, it was a different story: She was home lounging in her pajamas when fellow candidate Ellen Green-Ceisler called with the news: Carpenter had been selected for ballot position number one. Whoa! Now she was running, right now, this election. Green-Ceisler herself cried, driving home on the Turnpike, then went for a long walk along Wissahickon Creek to decide whether she was in or out — she’d drawn 19.
Mike Erdos stayed in. He felt he had no choice. He’d gone too far to back out, and if he was going to stay in, he was going to go after it. That meant spending money, a huge amount of family money, on everything he could think of: mailings, Inquirer ads, even some TV commercials. It meant paying most of the city’s 69 Democratic ward leaders for the privilege of being put on their sample ballots handed out to voters at the polls.