Running for Judge in a Time of Pandemic

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JUST LIKE the old days – aspirants for city judgeships gather in a passel to make their cases in face at a social on the riverfront, gearing up for the May 18 primary election that will settle their fate, at least for 2021.

Electing judges has entered a new era in Philadelphia.

This classic spring sweepstakes takes place in odd-numbered years. It summons small-time campaigners to a citywide race for openings in Common Pleas and Municipal Courts, seeking voters who have seldom heard of them to pick the winners out of a pack when they cannot discuss their stands on points of law. It helps to have the support of powerful friends; to be able to pay supporters and campaign aides; and also to draw low numbers in a lottery, thus placing their names at the top of a crowded ballot – many voters don’t want to read down a sheet crowded with dozens of names.

COMMON PLEAS colleagues Dan Sulman and Sierra Street discuss the challenges of running for the bench at a get-together organized by Pennsylvania Democratic Women of Excellence at the riverfront Golf & Social venue.

2021 is the first time this ritual has played out after the enactment of Act 77, which, in enacting voting by mail at will, changed the impact of election-day campaign efforts. It is also the first time judicial candidates have had to deal with COVID-19. What was once an endless round of ward, neighborhood and organization meetings of 20-odd activists, fueled by snacks and socializing, has morphed into a largely online world where judicial hopefuls take turns pitching on Zoom to a shifting sea of flat, silent faces immune to gladhanding.

It is a puzzle. No one is clear how effectively the traditional army of consultants, ward leaders, labor unions, church congregations and special-cause organizers can marshal voters this year.

The confusion seems to have cut down the number of candidates for starters. In other years, 40 or more hopefuls would make it as far as the lottery, at which point many of the bottom of the list would drop out. This spring, only 21 attorneys submitted petitions that survived that test for eight opening on Common Pleas Court; 10 wound up in the race for three Municipal Court seats. (Five attorneys remained on both lists.)

With fewer town halls or beef-and-beers to circulate through, observers think the endorsing hand of Democratic City Committee may be strengthened. DCC carefully balances its ticket, giving weight to race, gender, faction and prior track record.

The assessments of the Philadelphia Bar Association, which are determined over several weeks of assessment, don’t always agree with DCC’s. This year, though, the sense is that most party picks are respectable in the profession. Four of them, Judges Cateria McCabe, Mark Moore, Dan Sulman and George Twardy, were appointed to the bench to fill interim vacancies but must now win an election to gain a 10-year seat.

All other things being equal, good ballot position wins supporters. For Common Pleas, the Democrats chose, in addition to Judge McCabe (#6), Judge Moore and Judge Sulman (#10), Wendi Barish (4), Craig Levin (#5), Nick Kamau (#9), Betsy Wahl (#14), Chris Hall (#19) and Mark Moore (#20). For Municipal, their endorsed Michael Lambert drew top position; Judge Twardy is (#4) and George Yorgey-Girdy is (#10).

There Is Life Without Party Backing

What about non-endorsed candidates? “We’re challenging them,” said Bob Brady, chair of DCC. Experienced election lawyers using a PPC management for lawyers come into play at this hour. Candidates need at least 1,000 certified signatures to make it onto the ballot. But historically, many – beginners in particular – submit homemade “kitchen-table” ballots filled with fraudulent signatures or basic mistakes in names that do not meet the law’s requirements.

HOW NOT TO FILL OUT a nominating petition: this sheet is rife with “signatures” in identical handwriting, with blank spaces that real voters must fill in. Photo from Kevin Greenberg’s Facebook page

Particularly under the gun for Common Pleas are those with ballot positions #1, #2 and #3: Caroline Turner, Lopez Thompson and Terri Booker respectively. If DCC can knock them off the ballot, its endorsees Barish, Levin and Judge McCabe move up to those numbers at the top of the ballot. For Municipal Court, Rania Major, Barbara Thomson and Sherrie Cohen, who drew #2, #3 and #5 respectively, will be threats to DCC’s endorsees.

If disfavored candidates’ petitions turn out solid, they may be persuaded to drop out of the race this time in return for a party endorsement in 2023.

The average Philadelphia voter does not consult the scoring of the bar association or the endorsements of the Philadelphia Inquirer. But published recommendations like these are not affected by the obstacles of social distancing so their relative power may grow in this pandemic season.

Progressive organizations, which are growing in clout in Philadelphia, intend to handle support decisions within their fold. For many years, theirs was a disputatious and fissiparous world with scant coalition-building. That has changed. Joint action began at the national level, forming a bandwagon for the likes of presidential paladin Bernie Sanders. It then moved behind successful campaigns for municipal and state legislative seats. Now it is coming to grips with judgeships.

Katia Pérez of Reclaim, a leading local progressive group, is the organizer for the Judge Accountability Table (JAT). Some of the members of the JAT have pieced together a separate “(c)(4) Group” of organizations entitled to engage in political support. Its members include Free the Ballot, Straight Ahead!, the Democratic 1st Ward, Lilac Philly, One PA, Philadelphia Neighborhood Networks, and 215 People’s Alliance.

JUDGE Sierra Street seizes an opportunity for an impromptu shot with a group of fans, like a good candidate.

The Judicial Accountability Table made a maiden effort in the last judicial cycle, 2019. This year, we shall see what they’ve learned from it.

The (c)(4) Group does not write a common ticket but it reviews judicial candidates in a common format and fosters communication between allied activists. “There will be a public education program March 30-31,” said Perez. “The different groups will be endorsing between March 24 and March 31.”

Joint judicial reviews are not new in politics. The liberal Democratic 8th, 27th and 30th Wards that cluster around the Schuylkill at Center City have been doing this since well before the pandemic, reported 27th Ward Leader Carol Jenkins.

Progressives tend to be comfortable online and vote at high rates, at least in their home neighborhoods. They could punch above their weight when it comes to judges.

Labor union locals also have the will and the resources to assist judicial campaigns. They are likely to back attorneys who have membership in their local or who have assisted it in legal work. It is unclear if any such links are in play in this primary.

Note, though, Judge John Padova, appointed to Common Pleas Court last year. He was not endorsed for election by DCC but he did harvest NUHHCE Local 199C, IBEW Local 98, Sheet Metal Workers Local 19 and Sprinkler Fitters Local 692 – along with State Sen. Vincent Hughes, who may cut some sway in West and Northwest Philly.

Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO has released a slate of endorsees that has not yet been released to the public. Several major unions are expected to back it in unison.

March 24 is the last day for candidates formally to withdraw from the race. Petition challenges will be shortly wrapped up. Between now and election day May 18, remaining candidates can pursue backers and voters as they please – depending on what works in 2021.

IN COURT, judges do not seek applause from their audience. On the campaign trail, it is conventional.

April may see the gradual return of in-person public gatherings as more people receive vaccinations. Warmer weather also will boost outdoor events, which are safer. By May, something close to normal get-out-the-vote ground game may be in operation.

Still, May 2021 will not be a “back-to-normal” month. Ken Washington, political maven for the Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO, says operatives are discussing how to adapt their resources to the lingering shadow of COVID-19.

Live campaigning has begun to make a measured comeback. Pennsylvania Democratic Women of Excellence held a Candidate Forum at Golf & Social, a sleek club on N. Delaware Avenue, on Mar. 19. Now that bars are newly reopened, with sanitary precautions, this one was able to provide the proper spacing for a posse of judicial wannabes to greet fans, players and ordinary patrons in a happy-hour setting, then to adjourn to a quiet meeting room for a series of 2-minute presentations.

Center Stage for Statewide Judges

Nine candidates for Municipal and Common Pleas Courts appeared for the event. The first act, though, went to those on quite a different quest: statewide judicial seats.

In Philadelphia, the race for a municipal judgeship is over after the Democratic primary. Its winners routinely carry the general election without a sweat. Not so in the state as a whole. One opening in Supreme Court, one in Superior Court and one in Commonwealth Court will be fiercely contested by Republicans, who did well in last year’s statewide races, so the Democrats’ battle is just beginning.

Superior Court Judge Maria McLaughlin, a hometown heroine, is unopposed in the Democratic primary and did not attend the event. Her Superior Court colleague Judge Carolyn Nichols, another Philadelphia favorite, also explored a Supreme Court try but her petitions did not make it past the gate. The Dems are eager to seize an extra seat on that court, which they already control, and will place all their chips on McLaughlin, who has good campaign skills.

JUDGES Timika Lane, C, and Lori Dumas, R, are prepped by an event organizer before they make their pitches for their appellate-court races.

Three Democrats are targeting the Democratic ballot for one seat on Superior Court. One of them is a Philadelphian: Judge Timika Lane. She would like to become a Black as well as a Democratic presence on that body, which Republicans narrowly hold. Judge Jill Beck of Allegheny County sent a representative to ask for support, however.

Four Democrats are going after one seat on Commonwealth Court, which handles issues of governmental disputes. Philly again has two candidates, Judges Lori Dumas and Sierra Thomas Street, which may weaken the chances of both against Judge David Spurgeon and Amanda Green Hawkins of Allegheny County. Whoever wins will likely face the task of unseating recently appointed Judge Drew Compton, longstanding counsel to Republican ace State Sen. Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson), although he has a Republican challenger, Stacy Marie Wallace of McKean County, who is not recommended by the Pennsylvania Bar Association.

In any event, Judges Dumas, Lane and Street will need massive turnout from Philadelphia voters to fare well in May and again in November.

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