Election 2017

Philly lawyers to disrupt the Democratic City Committee on Election Day

The Bar Association would like you to consider its picks for judges.

Philadelphia voters line up to vote on Election Day 2016.

Philadelphia voters line up to vote on Election Day 2016.

Dan Levy/Billy Penn
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Update, 2:55 p.m.

The Democratic City Committee won’t be alone this year when it hands out sample ballots at the polls. The Philadelphia Bar Association is trying to beat the bureaucrats at their own game.

It will have a team of about 100 volunteers handing out literature explaining its approved candidates for judicial positions on Election Day at various voting precincts, just as the City Committee passes out sample ballots featuring its endorsed candidates. The Bar Association is also teaming up with Econsult Solutions to measure how much its efforts impact voters’ decisions.

“We want the ratings to matter to people,” said Matt Olesh, chair of the Bar’s Young Lawyers Division. “We want people to care and understand how much work goes into it.”

Every year, especially in non-presidential years, judgeships tend to be the most forgotten races in Philadelphia elections. Voters can pick four Superior Court, two Commonwealth Court, nine Common Pleas and two Municipal Court judges next Tuesday, but it’s likely they know very little about the candidates.

And despite the credibility of the Bar in the legal community, its impact on the judicial races has been minimal. Econsult recently did a study on the effects of endorsements and ballot position on the 2013 race, which should mirror this year’s race in terms of turnout and voter interest.

In that race, a candidate only needed 6.5 percent of the vote to win the Democratic Primary (about 20,000 votes in a city that has about 1 million registered Democratic voters). Econsult found having the first ballot position (which is decided by coffee can, seriously) was worth 2.2 percentage points and the Democratic City Committee endorsement worth 1.4 points, both significant amounts. As for the Bar Association? Just 0.2 percent.

The Bar Association has been recommending candidates for decades. The process involves a team of attorneys ranging from those in private practice to the City Solicitor’s office, and they spend about 40 hours vetting each candidate. They speak with other judges and lawyers, review relevant cases and gauge their community involvement. Candidates can be deemed “not recommended” based on things like mental fitness, financial irresponsibility or simply for not responding to the Bar Association’s queries. It also only ranks Philadelphia candidates. Judges from outside Philadelphia will appear on the ballot in the Commonwealth Court, Superior Court and Supreme Court races.

The Bar Association’s ratings aren’t completely transparent. The Association does not explain why it decides to recommend or not recommend candidates. Olesh said that’s because candidates sign confidentiality agreements as part of the vetting. He defended the Association’s process.

“Certain people have skepticism about a group of lawyers from on high telling them how they should vote,” Olesh said. “That’s also why we want to get the word out. It’s not people sitting around a room picking candidates. This is a deep dive.”

Nobody was picking up the phones at the City Committee’s headquarters the last few days, but chairman and US Congressman Bob Brady has previously said the City Committee’s endorsements are based on votes from ward leaders. Whoever gets the support of the most ward leaders gets the endorsement. Holly Otterbein of Philly Mag got into the closed-doors judicial endorsement meeting this year and quoted Brady as saying of candidates, “We gotta do gender. We gotta do racial. We gotta do geographical.”

However they were picked, half of the City Committee’s 10 endorsed Common Pleas candidates are not recommended by the Bar Association: Deborah Cianfrani, Vincent Melchiorre, Shanese Johnson, Crystal Powell and Danyl Patterson. The three endorsed candidates for Municipal Court, Marissa Brumbach, George Twardy and Matt Wolf, are recommended by the Bar (a fourth candidate, Jon Marshall, was also recommended).

“It’s not ideal,” Olesh said of the City Committee endorsing unapproved candidates. “I don’t fully understand how the City Committee makes its choices. I can make assumptions. That’s kind of why we do what we do so people understand how much work we’re doing to evaluate the candidates.”

 

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