The shadow election: Judicial candidates get little scrutiny because so few pay attention

In an effort to shed some light on a process that usually takes below the political radar, the Chew and Belfield Neighbors Club Inc. (CBNC) held a judicial candidates forum on Wednesday.

Along with the Cliveden Hills Association and Awbury Arboretum Neighbors, the organization invited several candidates running for various judicial positions in the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania court system to the conference room of the Joseph E. Coleman Regional Library to introduce their platforms and answer audience member questions. About twenty people attended.

The forum was organized and overseen by CBNC president and founder Reverend Chester H. Williams, who was also responsible for organizing a similar forum for 8th district council candidates on March 30.

Although both forums were held with the goal of introducing candidates to the public, Williams found the judicial forum to be one of special importance due to the fact that few voters know much about the judges they elect.

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“The judicial system touches everyone’s life in some way, form, or fashion,” Williams said in an interview after the event. “(The judges) should be made to come out and mingle in the community more.”

Instead, candidates often rely on support from ward and party endorsements to win elections; a trend that may not be working as well as it has in past elections. But Williams is not an outsider to the political process, he serves as an elected Committee person in the 59th Ward.

Williams invited candidates to the forum in any way he could – directly, through e-mails and phone calls, advertisements in newspapers and community newsletters, and, of course, good old fashioned word of mouth.

CBNC’s status as a non-profit organization prohibits it from openly endorsing a candidate. “I was happy because that way I won’t be in any way persuading people to vote either way,” Williams said.

To keep the forum as unbiased as possible, Williams himself asked no questions of the candidates, but relied on the audience to solicit information from candidates.

“This was grassroots people that you saw asking these questions,” he said. Questions covered a range of matters, from expunging a record to shipping inmates to other states to when a judge can be asked to recuse.

Candidates attending the forum were either vying for a seat in Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas or Traffic Court. To qualify for Common Pleas Court, a candidate must be a U.S. citizen, reside in Pennsylvania for at least a year, and be licensed to practice law in the Commonwealth, and be 21 years of age. They serve a ten year term and can run for another ten year term in a retention election following its end.

The Common Pleas Court is also broken down into Family, Orphan and Trial Divisions.

Traffic court judges serve six-year terms and may also participate in retention elections. In Philadelphia, there are only seven of these judges, but what may be most surprising of all is that you don’t have to be lawyer to be traffic judge. You do have to pass an extensive course and be certified. All judges are required to retire at the age of seventy.

Despite the lack of campaigning for judicial elections, Williams acknowledged that politics is still part of the game, if not to the same scale as in other city elections. “I don’t think the judges really want to deal with politics,” he said.

Roughly 45 candidates are running for the ten open positions in the Common Pleas Court, seven of which attended the forum. Two were running for traffic court positions.

Williams lamented the fact that there wasn’t more time for candidates to speak and that there wasn’t a greater turnout (the library closed at 8 p.m. and the NewsWorks Eighth district debate was taking place down the street), but believes that it was step in the right direction.

“They (judicial candidates) totally forget the community people,” Williams said. “A lot of people are saying it’s time for a change.”

Judicial contests take place on May 17, as part of Philadelphia’s primary elections.

Judges in attendance of the forum were as follows. For positions in the Court of Common Pleas: Anita Smith, Diana Anhalt, Beverly Muldrow, Robert Klein, and Drew Aldinger, Stephanie Sawyer and Daine Grey, Jr. For position in Traffic Court: John Adams and Donna Laws. All candidates that attended this event were Democrats.

Correction: An earlier version incorectly stated the name of one of the event sponsors. NewsWorks regrets the error.

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