Oct 28 2008
The November issue of Philadelphia Magazine includes a lengthy feature analyzing how judges get elected in Philadelphia. Although the story focuses only on the process for electing local judges, it puts in sharp relief some of the major problems with using elections to pick judges: the randomness of the process and the money.
The article opens at the scene of the drawing of lots for ballot position:
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.
After identifying some judges for reputations as not qualified to serve or for not possessing the requisite “judicial temperament,” the article hits the heart of the matter:
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.
So, how do candidates achieve the required name recognition to win an election? That’s where the campaign money comes in, and the article focuses on how candidates spend their money in Philadelphia judicial elections. Candidates who want to win must “pony up to the real power brokers in our judicial elections — consultants. Their main job is to tell candidates which ward leaders should get their money.” When the system works as designed, candidates pay the ward leaders for their get out the vote efforts. Except, sometimes, according to the article, payments are made and services aren’t delivered as promised.
The author opines that this isn’t the real problem with the system, however:
[T]he bigger problem is the demand that our prospective judges — our judges — dive into a deal-making election process that becomes a test of whether they can close their eyes and hold their noses long enough to resurface with any moral equilibrium.
This is a good point that applies to all judicial elections, which emphasize fundraising and campaigning above skill and experience. There’s got to be a better way.Tags: ballot position, local elections, Philadelphia, Philadelphia Magazine