‘No. 1’ candidate for Philly judge drops out of race

Ballot position is everything if you want a seat on the court.

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Flickr Creative Commons / Allen Allen
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The judicial candidate who drew the coveted first ballot spot for the Court of Common Pleas has been forced to withdraw after submitting bogus petitions.

Vincent Melchiorre was a lucky man — for a week.

Melchiorre — a Shotokan karate master who’s faced scrutiny about his family residence in New Jersey — has sat on the court twice in the last five years. He was appointed to fill vacancies by two different governors. Each time he ran for reelection for a full term, however, voters rejected him.

But 2019 was looking like his chance to prove the third time’s a charm. While all eyes were on the contested drawing for City Council ballot position last week in City Hall, a similar drawing was quietly taking place in Harrisburg.

Melchiorre drew the number one ballot position among 39 candidates vying for seven open seats for city judge. In Pennsylvania’s judicial races, good ballot position is far more influential than, say, the approval of the Philadelphia Bar Association. Candidates in the first ballot position won every single election between 2009 and 2015, an Econsult study found.

Then on Wednesday, Melchiorre dropped out of the race, according to court filings. The issue that extinguished his newfound hopes was a petition challenge over bad signatures.

Melchiorre was one of at least a dozen judicial candidates who hired political consultant Rasheen Crews to help collect the necessary 1,000 signatures from registered voters to get on the May primary ballot. But the Crews crew apparently bit off more than it could chew. Petitions submitted by Melchiorre and others left election experts dumbstruck. Faked signatures. Photocopied pages. “Kitchen table jobs,” they were called.

“‘Bogus’ is a charitable description of what surfaced in these candidates’ filings,” said Larry Otter, the Bucks County election lawyer who filed a legal challenge against Melchiorre’s petitions.

Pennsylvania is one of just a few states that still holds partisan elections for judges, and Melchiorre’s case highlights why critics believe it’s problematic. The ballot position lottery, which is enshrined by state law, is not only an archaic ritual in a time when other states randomize ballot position at various polling places — it essentially invites people to game the system.

‘Looking for a steady paycheck’

People elected as judges will have the authority to put people in jail or prison for a long time — but a good number of voters simply pick the first names on the top-left part of the ballot, studies have shown. In political argot, judicial races are the epitome of “low information.” Voters go into the booth prepared to vote for a mayor, a governor, a congressperson, maybe a city councilmember or two. Then they’re asked to choose multiple judges from a humongous crowd.

A low ballot position is enough to make even a qualified candidate back out of the race. What’s considered low? One Democratic candidate this election cycle, Wade Albert, dropped out after pulling 18 of 39.

“I have been in talks with my advisors and many close friends about the odds of prevailing,” Albert wrote in a Facebook post last week. “I unfortunately have come to the conclusion that my chances would be slim.

Vice versa, less-than-stellar candidates can hit the jackpot with a top spot and get showered with endorsements from ward leaders and party officials. Micheal “Ozzie” Myers, an ex-congressman who went to jail over the Abscam scandal in 1980s but remains influential as a consultant in judicial races, put it bluntly: there are hacks out there playing the job lottery.

“Sad to say, some of these candidates weren’t very good lawyers in the first place and now they’re looking for a steady paycheck,” Meyers said. “As crazy as that sounds, that’s really the truth.”

Beating bad ballot position

The Democratic City Committee held its cattle call earlier this week to hear pitches from candidates seeking the party’s endorsement. The party’s backing means getting your name on the printed list it blankets the city with on Election Day.

Jennifer Schultz, who pulled the second ballot spot, will now move up to the first ranked billing in light of Melchiorre’s withdrawal.

It might be the extra bump she needs. This is her third run for the Court of Common Pleas — and the last two elections she finished a few hundred votes shy of becoming a judge. In her two past attempts, Schultz had the Bar Association’s recommendation, but not the party’s endorsement.

“[It] is a chicken and egg problem,” Schultz told Billy Penn. “People think that ballot position matters so much, so the decision makers decide to way to weigh heavily in favor for ballot position.”

To curry favor with the party, judicial candidates must begin with support from the ward leader of the area where they reside, and move on from there. Political insiders say it’s also an unspoken rule that lawyers who do pro bono legal work for the Democratic party are looked upon favorably come endorsement time.

The party also considers a variety of other factors in making its endorsements. The process is about optics, too. As party leader Bob Brady famously described it, according to this 2017 Philly Mag profile: “We gotta do gender. We gotta do racial. We gotta do geographical.”

Money and influence are critical to the party’s endorsement, too. Judicial races get very little media attention — and candidates have to pay handsomely to ward leaders and political consultants if they want a handsome turnout. Being filthy rich or having deep-pocketed backers are other options. “If your family or your wife are a part of some major law firm, it seems you get considered pretty quick,” Myers ribbed.

Does the Bar matter?

The Econsult study that showed that ballot position mattered the most — more than an endorsement from the party or the Inquirer — placed the Philadelphia Bar Association’s recommendations dead last in terms of impact.

Critics says the Bar Association takes too long to make recommendations, which can sometimes come right before Election Day. The Bar says it’s a practical matter.

“There are so many folks running and the process is very labor intensive and thoughtful,” said Rochelle M. Fedullo, head of the local association.

Tension between the Democratic City Committee and the Bar has been mounting for years as party leaders continue backing candidates who don’t meet the legal community’s standards.

In 2017, in an attempt to beat the party elders at their own game, the Bar began sending volunteers to the polling places to pitch voters on their own list of approved candidates — and then measured the impact of educating voters directly. Findings suggested that expanding the initiative citywide could sway voters toward the Bar’s slate, party endorsement be damned.

Fedullo said the bar will repeat the effort with on the May 21 primary.

 

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