Judging Judges: May 17th Primary and Beyond

Ten questions for the candidates who want us to vote them into the most powerful elected office in Philadelphia

Judges, especially criminal-court judges, are the most powerful elected officials in Philadelphia. They can do what the Mayor, the Governor and even the President can’t do. They can take away your children through a custody decree, take away your property through a forfeiture ruling, take away your freedom through an incarceration order, and take away your life through a death sentence. Plainly stated, they can do almost anything they want. Despite this, the average person knows very little about judges and even less about their qualifications or lack thereof.

[SIGNUP]But people need to know. And they need to know soon, because the May 17th municipal primary election is fast approaching. Ten Common Pleas Court judges and one Municipal Court judge (not to mention a Superior Court judge, a Commonwealth Court judge and a Traffic Court judge) will be nominated. Common Pleas Court judges remain in office for a full decade at an annual salary of $165,000 and Municipal Court judges for a six-year term at an annual salary of $161,000. That’s a lot of power and a lot of money.

That power and money shouldn’t be the result of a “kept-in-the-dark” public blindly casting ballots for such life-altering individuals. Accordingly, judges shouldn’t be elected—at least not the way they currently are. They shouldn’t be appointed either. And that’s because the old boys’ network would continue to perpetuate the same backroom, smoke-filled, racist, sexist and classist decision-making that it always has.

Instead, judicial candidates should be required to meet minimum standards in order to be eligible to run for office. One example: They should have practiced law for about 15 years and served as lead counsel in about 25 jury trials, 10 bench trials and five appeals, and also should pass a basic constitutional-law exam.

This would be the perfect fix. But that’s not gonna happen anytime soon—and maybe even never. And that’s because of the committeemen, committeewomen, ward leaders, party heads and other selfishly motivated politicians. These hacks together charge each of the judicial candidates up to approximately $150,000 for an endorsement. Instead of being swayed by such endorsements—from people who care much more about their pockets than their people—you should be swayed by pertinent, nonpartisan information. Meanwhile, let’s do as much as we possibly can, which is to tape and paste the broken system that we’re stuck with. That taping and that pasting should be in the form of questions like the following:

1. Why do you want to be a judge?
2. What are your qualifications to be a judge?
3. What is your judicial philosophy?
4. How long have you been a lawyer (and, if applicable, a judge)?
5. What type of legal work did you do in your last 10 years as a lawyer?
6. How many jury trials have you handled as lead counsel?
7. How many bench trials have you handled as lead counsel?
8. How many appeals have you filed and argued as lead counsel?
9. Which organizations do you belong to and why?
10. What type of pro bono work have you done and for whom?

It’s only by judging the judges that any substantive and lasting changes in the criminal-court system will come about. And it’s not just a matter of getting or retaining qualified judges, but also a matter of demanding accountability from those judges by monitoring them for objectivity, impartiality, civility, efficiency and scholarship. And we can start by questioning the judicial candidates in the May 17th primary.

After all, judges don’t own the courtrooms. They are merely temporary tenants. We, the public, are the permanent landlords. And we, therefore, can (and should) evict when necessary.