Karen Heller: Ridiculous rules mar Philadelphia's choosing of judges

Posted: April 04, 2013

Did you know we're weeks away from the judicial primary? Me neither, and I'm sort of supposed to know this stuff. I realized the races were imminent only after running into a friend sporting an "Abbe for Judge" button.

That friend was Abbe Fletman, a Penn Law graduate and lecturer, an experienced trial lawyer, named one of Pennsylvania's top female attorneys, and supremely qualified to sit on Philadelphia's Court of Common Pleas.

Naturally, Fletman dropped out of the race.

Her decision is based largely on landing a lousy ballot position, 24th of 36 for six vacancies, a decision based on the highly technical system of pulling cards from a black cloth bag in Harrisburg two weeks ago. Fletman wrote in a Facebook message to her friends that "the path to victory unfortunately was highly unlikely."

In Philadelphia, it's all about being on top.

"You could be Louis Brandeis or Thurgood Marshall running for Common Pleas Court in Philadelphia and, without a good ballot position, you're not going to win," said Sayde Ladov, who ran two years ago. A former chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, Ladov learned her lesson the hard way, raising a quarter of a million dollars, only to lose. Ladov said she would never run again.

Sierra Thomas Street is luckier, landing fifth on the Common Pleas ballot. Formerly married to Mayor Street's son, her name is familiar to most voters. On Tuesday, she was not endorsed by the bar association in the first round of judicial ratings. Last month, the police filed a report that Thomas Street allegedly beat her 13-year-old son, the Philadelphia Daily News reported. The Police Special Victims Unit and the District Attorney's Office concluded there was no criminal conduct, and no charges were filed.

Neither of these issues may matter to Thomas Street as much as her name and ballot position. The only qualifications to run for judge are being a member of the bar of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, a state resident of one year, and over the age of 21. To win, it takes about $250,000, though some candidates with top ballot position have spent less, and one successful candidate spent more than twice that amount. Deborah Cianfrani is also running for Common Pleas Court - another juicy political name - and was also not recommended by the bar association.

"The four things it takes to win have absolutely nothing to do with being a good judge," said Common Pleas Court Senior Judge Benjamin Lerner. "Money. Political connections and support. Race, gender, and ethnic identity that voters will use to choose candidates because they don't know anything else. And chance."

Four years ago during a contested race for district attorney, less than 11 percent of the electorate voted. This year, when Seth Williams faces virtually no competition, we could see record-low turnout May 21. With limited coverage and interest, ballot position and name recognition gain in importance. It becomes a greater game of chance, and yet these are the very elected officials who decide matters of life and death, health and prosperity.

There are so many candidates for Common Pleas and Municipal Courts, to say nothing of - insert joke here - Traffic "Court" (where 26 people are running), that news outlets, including The Inquirer, are unable to interview them all. Instead, editorial boards rely on the bar association's extensive vetting process for their candidate endorsements.

The preliminary diagnosis is not good. In the first round of ratings (available at www.philadelphiabar.org), the bar association failed to endorse almost as many candidates as it recommended.

"I keep coming back to the profoundly important role of the judge and the way they're selected," said Lynn Marks, who has worked two decades for merit selection and better courts. "They're on the low part of the totem pole yet are arguably the most important elected officials in terms of directly impacting people's lives. Yet people know the least about them."

Pennsylvania is one of only six states that elects judges on all levels in partisan elections. And Philadelphia, as you may have noticed, is a one-party town. The Democratic City Committee makes its decisions independent of qualifications and bar association endorsements. It matters whom you know.

"It's a terrible system," says the Committee of Seventy's Ellen Mattleman Kaplan. "And it's not going to change, because too many people are invested in local partisan elections." There is hope that appellate judges will be chosen through merit selection; a bipartisan citizen selection committee, gubernatorial nomination, legislative confirmation, and subsequent up-or-down retention votes in nonpartisan elections. Two state Senate bills are pending on fixing the seven-car crack-up of Philadelphia Traffic Court. But, Kaplan told me, "the chances of getting an appointed judicial system on a local level are zero."

As Ladov noted: "Right now, these are the rules of the game. Either you're going to play by the rules, or you're not going to play."


Contact Karen Heller

at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter at @kheller.

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