'The essential issues of our day-to-day lives': A push for Pennsylvanians to get out and vote for judges
MAY 20, 2019 - 6:18 PM
PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — The focus of this year's primary in Pennsylvania is at the local level, but there are state and county-wide judgeships to be decided as well, and one nonpartisan group argues judicial candidates are the most important picks you'll make on a ballot.
Judges may have a greater impact on your life or the community as a whole than the executive or legislative branch, says Maida Milone, president and CEO of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.
"If you are in family court and it’s a question about whether or not your parental rights will be terminated, it’s a judge that's going to make that decision. If you are in a dispute with your landlord and it's a question of whether or not you will be evicted, it’s a judge who is going to be making that decision," Milone said.
There are two open seats on Pennsylvania’s Superior Court with a few candidates from both parties running as well as several open bench positions in the Court of Common Pleas across all five counties.
"Our hope is that most people know their local judge candidates better than they would know statewide candidates and therefore might be able to cast a thoughtful and reasonable decision about who should be a judge," Milone added.
For a complete list of all judicial candidates, visit Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts' website or the Committee of 70 Voter Guide.
Below are the websites for Philadelphia, Delaware, Montgomery, Chester and Bucks counties' board of elections.
Pennsylvania is teetering on the brink of losing its independent appellate judiciary. Legislation that would ask voters to agree to balkanize how our justices and judges are selected for Pennsylvania’s three statewide appellate courts is advancing though the General Assembly. Currently, jurists who sit on our appellate courts are elected on a statewide basis. House Bill 196, sponsored by Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, wants to divide the state into a myriad of districts based on the number of justices and judges sitting in each appellate court — seven for the Supreme Court, 15 for Superior Court and nine for Commonwealth Court — and to hold judicial elections within those districts. This is an attempt to effect a transformation of the third branch of our government into a legislature of sorts with jurists being expected to represent the views of their districts, views Mr. Diamond and the bill’s supporters want to ensure mirror theirs more often.
Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts strongly opposes H.B. 196. We have long believed that partisan elections are damaging to the integrity of the judiciary and the public’s confidence in the work of our courts. In Pennsylvania, even the most qualified judicial candidates for statewide appellate judgeships are dependent on campaign contributions from individuals and special interest groups with business before the courts. This dependency creates an appearance of impropriety that ultimately undermines public confidence in Pennsylvania’s courts and potentially threatens judicial independence.
This bill would render judicial elections even more fraught than they already are. Significantly reducing the pool of voters for each judicial candidate will only serve to heighten judges’ feelings and the perception of the public at large that those judges’ decisions represent the interests only of those who voted for them and/or funded their campaigns. Moreover, it will inhibit the independent mindset that is required to adjudicate legal issues of statewide importance.
Placing judicial candidates in the same position as legislators — presenting their positions on issues and securing funding from people who support those issues — is not only unproductive, it contravenes the standards we expect them to meet while serving us as judges. Forcing them to do that in smaller and smaller districts upends the role of the courts and will leave us with no independent branch of government to balance the power of the legislature and executive.
President & CEO
Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts
3 things to know about the Pa. Superior Court candidates: Their legal heroes, fundraising, and biggest weaknesses
by Andrew Seidman, Updated: May 8, 2019
State judicial candidates in Pennsylvania are limited in what they can say about cases or issues that might make their way to the courtroom, so it can be difficult for voters to make sense of the field ahead of the May 21 primary elections.
But at a forum hosted by the advocacy group Pennsylvania for Modern Courts at the Parkway Central Library of the Free Library of Philadelphia Tuesday evening, five of the six candidates for Superior Court offered insight into their thinking as judges and aspiring jurists for the statewide appellate court.
There are two open seats on the court, which handles appeals of civil and criminal cases, as well as those in cases involving family and children.
Running in the Republican primary are Cumberland County Judge Christylee Peck, Chester County Deputy District Attorney Megan King, and Rebecca Warren, a lawyer and former Montour County district attorney. Running for the Democratic nomination are Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Daniel McCaffery as well as lawyers Beth Tarasi and Amanda Green-Hawkins from Allegheny County. Green-Hawkins, a lawyer who works for the United Steelworkers union, didn’t appear at the event.
Here are three things to know about the candidates.
You might not have heard of the individual candidates, but moderator Karl Myers asked them a potentially revealing question: Who is your legal hero, and why?
Rebecca Warren: the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. “I admire him because he believed in judicial restraint and he also believed in following the Constitution and the rule of law.”
Christylee Peck: Scalia, “but not for the reason probably everyone here is sitting here thinking.It is because I love that he reached across and was really good friends with Justice [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg. I like the idea that intellectually you can have completely different intellectual thoughts but you can have a discourse about it and you can be friends.” Courts should be balanced, Peck said, adding that she wanted a friendlier civic discourse.
Megan King: Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Saylor. King said she clerked for Saylor and described him as her mentor. “I remember getting multiple papers back covered in red pen. ... It was about making sure that you clearly think about what you want to say, and making sure that you’re following the law as it is written, and actually having the law guide you to your decisions,” she said, rather than bending the law to a desired outcome.
Beth Tarasi: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “She showed us as women that we can all do this.”
Daniel McCaffery: the late Edward R. Becker, former chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia. McCaffery, who was born in Germantown and raised in Northeast Philly, recalled Becker as a “guy from the neighborhood” who would take the El to the federal courthouse at Sixth and Market Streets. “He was renowned as an intellectual giant, but more importantly he had a common touch.”
Money? What money?
Judicial candidates in Pennsylvania are prohibited from personally soliciting campaign contributions, but they are permitted to authorize fundraising committees to raise money on their behalf.
All the candidates said they were committed to transparency and disclosure in accordance with the law, but a couple suggested they weren't even sure who’s bankrolling their campaigns.
McCaffery said he told his campaign committee “exactly what I thought I would need, and I’ve left it alone since then.”
“I have not checked,” he said. “I have not asked. Nor will I ask.”
Fellow Democrat Tarasi appeared to go a step further: “I don’t even know where the donations are coming from,” she said, adding that her campaign committee keeps track.
For the record, McCaffery had about $173,000 in his campaign account as of May 6, according to reports filed with the Department of State. Labor unions account for the bulk of his haul.
Tarasi had about $58,000 as of April 1 (the latest report is due Friday). Her biggest contribution was $10,000 from Janet Anti, a Pittsburgh pastor.
They are good at the humble-brag
Myers, the moderator, asked the candidates to name their biggest strengths and weaknesses. Some said they are hard workers, others excellent leaders, and so forth. Self-criticism is much more fun, so let’s get to that.
Warren: “I have a very low tolerance for injustice. I get very frustrated by it at times.”
Peck: “Being a judge is a heavy weight. And I really take the decisions to heart.”
King: “I burn a candle in too many places,” adding that she was a working mother of three. “Sometimes I don’t sleep a lot.”
McCaffery: “I don’t suffer fools lightly,” explaining that he gets frustrated if attorneys come to his courtroom unprepared.
Tarasi: “I get frustrated because I want the world to be a better place. There’s so many things I can’t change. I want to so bad. But I just have to kind of live with that.”
by Andrew Seidman, Updated: May 6, 2019- 5:14 AM
When you head to the polls on May 21, you might know whom you plan to support for mayor and City Council. But chances are you won’t know as much about the 33 judicial candidates on the ballot in Philadelphia.
Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states that holds partisan elections in all judicial races, from trial judges to Supreme Court justices.
In the Democratic primary this year, two are running for Superior Court, a statewide appellate court; another two for Philadelphia Municipal Court; and 25 for Common Pleas Court. In the Republican primary, three people are running for Superior Court and one for Common Pleas.
After readers asked about the process via Curious Philly — a forum where Inquirer journalists field questions from our audience — we decided to write a guide to how these elections work and why they’re held in the first place.
The basicsCommon Pleas courts, organized into 60 judicial districts across the state, handle all major civil and criminal cases. Philadelphia Municipal Court handles minor cases.
Superior and Common Pleas court judges serve 10-year terms, after which they may run for another 10 years in office. These uncontested “retention” elections are held during the general election on a simple “yes” or “no” vote. Superior Court judges rule on appeals from the trial level in criminal and civil matters and are paid an annual salary of $199,114; Common Pleas judges earn 183,184, and Municipal judges $178,946.
How many candidates do you vote for?
There are two open seats on Superior Court, six on Common Pleas, and one on Municipal.
Do the candidates raise money?
Yes, and critics of partisan judicial elections say that’s a problem, because candidates’ campaigns are funded by trial lawyers and others who may end up in their courtroom.
Judicial candidates are prohibited from personally soliciting campaign contributions, though others may raise money on their behalf. Candidates often loan their campaigns tens of thousands of dollars.
In addition to paying the Democratic City Committee $35,000 for a shot at an endorsement, many candidates also shell out campaign funds to political consultants, who work to persuade the city’s 69 Democratic ward leaders to back their clients. The party and ward leaders distribute sample ballots to voters.
Perhaps more important than any of those factors is pure luck of the draw on ballot position, determined by a lottery held in Harrisburg.
Candidates whose names appear in the first column tend to do better. In 2017, for example, six of the nine winners in the Democratic primary for Common Pleas Court were in the first column. There were 27 candidates in the field.
Are the candidates qualified?
Except for minor courts, candidates must be members of the state bar to be eligible for a judgeship.
The Philadelphia Bar Association investigates candidates and rates them as “highly recommended,” “recommended,” or “not recommended.”
So far, the Bar has rated three candidates as “not recommended.” Some candidates have listed their qualifications in questionnaires for PhillyJudges.com.
Where do they stand on the issues?
It’s hard to say. Judicial candidates are allowed to express their personal opinions. But they may not “make any statement that would reasonably be expected to affect the outcome or impair the fairness of a matter pending or impending in any court,” according to the state Code of Judicial Conduct.
Some left-leaning groups have asked candidates where they stand on issues like eliminating cash bail and scaling back the use of probation and parole.
Why do we elect judges?
Pennsylvania’s partisan election of judges dates back to 1850, when voters approved a constitutional amendment moving away from an appointment system. There were minor tweaks over the years, and in 1968 voters approved retention elections for sitting judges. This was designed to insulate them from political considerations on the bench.
A 1969 referendum asked voters whether they wanted statewide judges elected or appointed, and a majority stuck with the status quo.
In 1988, a blue-ribbon commission established by Gov. Robert Casey called for the appointment of appellate judges and allowing voters in individual counties to decide whether to continue to hold partisan elections for trial judges. The panel found that elections were particularly problematic in large counties like Philadelphia, where more than a dozen judges had been entangled in a bribery scandal involving gifts from Roofers Union officials.
The proposed changes were not adopted by the legislature, and subsequent efforts to pick judges based on merit have yet to succeed.
Locally, there was one minor victory for reformers in recent years. Amid allegations of rampant corruption in Philadelphia Traffic Court, voters approved a ballot initiative abolishing it.
What’s the latest proposal?
Lawmakers in Harrisburg are considering a constitutional amendment that would rely on a bipartisan citizens commission — composed of lawyers and non-lawyers chosen by the governor and legislative leaders — to recommend qualified judges for appellate courts.
The governor would choose nominees from that list, and they would need to be confirmed by the Senate. Judges would serve for four years and then face retention elections for a 10-year term.
The legislature would have to pass the resolution in consecutive two-year sessions, at which point the question would go to voters in a referendum.
The House Judiciary Committee advanced the measure on a party-line vote Tuesday, with Republicans supporting it and Democrats opposed. The measure would not affect lower courts.
Similar legislation advanced to the House floor last session but ultimately died.
What’s the resistance to merit selection?
It can be hard to get anything done in Harrisburg, even more so when it involves amending the constitution.
Maida Milone, executive director of the advocacy group Pennsylvania for Modern Courts, said that unlike issues such as health care, judicial reform doesn’t have a natural constituency.
In addition, “There is this perception that changing to an appointment system is somehow taking the vote away from the people, and legislators don’t want to be accused of doing that,” Milone said.
But she noted that voters would have to approve the change. “We’re not doing anything except giving voters the opportunity to say, ‘You know what, in these statewide races, I don’t have a clue, and I don’t feel equipped to make a decision about who’s going to be a great appellate judge.’"
What you'll find
PMC press releases, statements, and news coverage of our work, in addition to the latest news on Pennsylvania's courts, judicial elections, ethics, discipline and more.
Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts is a statewide nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to ensuring that all Pennsylvanians can come to our courts with confidence that they will be heard by qualified, fair, and impartial judges
1500 John F. Kennedy Blvd., 2 Penn Center, Suite 1140, Philadelphia, PA 19102