The Commonwealth Court hears cases in the Pennsylvania Judicial Center in Harrisburg. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Judges in Pennsylvania are chosen by popular vote. Like other elected officials, they eventually have to run for reelection. But jurists who’ve already been elected to the bench run in a different type of election than other officeholders.

Called “judicial retention,” the often overlooked races don’t involve any opponents — instead, they offer voters the choice of “yes” or “no” as to whether they want the judge to keep their position.

In Philadelphia, there are 20 of those yes/no races on the ballot this year, listed separately from the elections for empty judicial seats. They’re spread across Pa. Superior Court, the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, and Philadelphia Municipal Court.

Similar to ballot questions, the majority of voters pretty much always pick “yes” in response to the retention questions.

“It is exceedingly rare for a judge not to be retained,” Lauren Cristella, president and CEO of the nonpartisan, Philly-based good government group Committee of Seventy, told Billy Penn. “These are kind of low-information races. Voters don’t have a lot to go on. So, we definitely suggest doing a little bit of homework and checking on endorsements and other things.”

In 2021, the four statewide judges up for retention each got over 61% of voters’ approval, and the 20 judges up for retention just in Philly courts each received “yes” votes from 74% or more of voters.

This year’s retention cycle has included some pushes to vote “no.” Common Pleas Judge Anne Marie Coyle — who reportedly has been accused of bias by the Defender Association of Philadelphia and has had her motivations questioned by the Pa. Superior Court — earned a rare “not recommended” rating from the Philadelphia Bar Association.

Meanwhile, the Inquirer Editorial Board has urged voters to vote “no” on both Coyle and Municipal Court Judge David Shuter, who has presided over eviction cases while his wife has been Philly’s designated landlord and tenant officer.

How exactly do these retention elections work, what happens if a judge isn’t retained, and how can you find out more about the candidates? Read on for answers to these questions and others about Pennsylvania’s judicial retention process.

What is a judicial retention election, and how do they differ from plain old judicial elections?

Used in Pennsylvania and at least 18 other states, a judicial retention election determines whether or not a judge or justice will stay on the bench for another term. The people running are already serving in the listed positions — some may have been in their roles for decades. Voters are presented with “yes”/“no” options for whether to retain (i.e. keep) each of them.

It’s a different structure from the other judicial elections on the ballot, which feature candidates jostling for empty seats — vacancies that are generally caused by retirements or resignations. (Judges in Pennsylvania are required to retire or to serve only as a “senior judge” once they hit age 75.)

Retention elections happen in November of odd-numbered years, two months before a judge’s term is set to expire. Generally, you’ll see some of these elections every couple of years, since not all judges were elected to their initial term at the same time.

What happens if a judge isn’t retained?

That judge would finish out their current term and leave office once it’s over. Then, there would be an election for that open seat during the next odd-year election cycle (two years after their failed retention election).

Per the Pa. Constitution, between the two elections, the governor can appoint an interim replacement to the seat, who’s subject to the approval of two-thirds of the state Senate.

What are some cases when judges haven’t been retained?

It took nearly four decades after the current retention system was adopted in the late 1960s for a majority “no” vote to happen statewide. 

In 2005, Pa. Supreme Court Justice Russell Nigro became the first (and still only) state appellate judge to be voted out of office. The vote came at a time when Pennsylvanians were frustrated with state government after the legislature and governor had approved big pay raises for all three branches. That year, judicial races were the only statewide candidates on the ballot, so some perceived the rejection of Nigro as a “proxy” vote against the status quo in Harrisburg.

Nigro called the majority “no” vote “misdirected and misguided” in the press, since he hadn’t been involved in the raise. Another justice up for retention at the same time, Sandra Schultz Newman, managed to eke out another term with 54% of voters choosing “yes” to retain her.

In Philly, rejection happened earlier in history for a Court of Common Pleas judge. Voters in the 1985 election decided not to retain Bernard Snyder, who’d made national news for his handling of a controversial libel case in which the plaintiff’s lawyer was a friend of his. He tried to run for his old position again in 1987, but the state Supreme Court found him guilty of misconduct and barred him from holding any judicial office in Pennsylvania.

How long are judicial terms?

Judges and justices serving on the Pa. Supreme Court, Superior Court, and Commonwealth Court all serve 10-year terms, as do Court of Common Pleas judges. Philadelphia Municipal Court judges are elected to 6-year terms.

What do each of those courts do?

The Supreme Court, Superior Court, and Commonwealth Court are all appellate courts whose jurisdiction includes the entire state of Pennsylvania.

The 7-member Supreme Court is the highest court in the state, and it handles matters like requests for appeals from the Commonwealth and Superior courts, appeals of lower court decisions involving the death penalty, and requests to intervene in cases that are currently in lower courts.

The 15-member Superior Court and 9-member Commonwealth Court occupy the same tier, right below the Supreme Court. 

Commonwealth Court usually handles government-related legal proceedings, like appeals of government agency decisions and trials in cases where the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is either the plaintiff or defendant. Superior Court is the appellate court for criminal and most civil cases heard in Courts of Common Pleas, as well as in matters involving children and families.

The Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas and Philadelphia Municipal Court are both part of the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania, which is essentially Philly’s county court system.

The Court of Common Pleas has 101 judges and three divisions — trial, family, and orphans’ — where they handle most felony criminal cases, civil cases with contested amounts over $12k, divorces, custody issues, domestic violence cases, adoptions, estate proceedings, and more.

Municipal Court has 27 judges and three divisions: criminal, civil, and traffic. Its responsibilities include (but aren’t limited to) processing all of Philly’s criminal arrests, trying criminal cases with max sentences of five years, and handling landlord-tenant cases, many traffic law violations, and small claims cases.

Where can I find the races on my ballot, and what do the questions look like?

Unlike the elections for empty seats on Pa. courts, the retention elections are all toward the end of the ballot. If you’re voting by mail and don’t see them, make sure you flip over your ballot — they’re likely printed on the back side.

There are separate questions for every judge running for retention. Each will ask simply “yes” or “no” below each judge’s name. No political parties are listed. If you want a particular judge to have another term, vote “yes” under that judge’s name. If you don’t, vote “no.”

Why aren’t parties listed?

The idea, per the Pennsylvania courts administrative website, is to have a system that holds judges accountable based on their records in office, while also keeping them “out of the political fray” by making the races nonpartisan.

“They strip the party affiliation from the judges because they’re thought to be above partisan politics,” Cristella, of the Committee of Seventy, explained. “And that … after 10 years of serving in the role, they should just be impartial in upholding the law.”

Where can I find more information about the judges who are on the ballot this year?

Billy Penn’s procrastinator’s guide to the election has overviews of all of the judges who are up for retention this year, each listed under the drop-down for their respective court. Spotlight PA has articles detailing the backgrounds of each of the two judges running for retention statewide.

Cristella suggested taking a look at judicial ratings from the Pennsylvania Bar Association and Philadelphia Bar Association. The Pa. Bar’s website links to questionnaires that the two Superior Court judges filled out with more information on their personal and professional background, honors, and notable decisions.

You can also try finding organizations that share your values and finding out which judges they’ve endorsed for retention, Cristella recommended. PA Youth Vote keeps an updated spreadsheet of endorsements by wards, parties, unions, and other organizations for candidates across this year’s general election ballot.

Asha Prihar is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She has previously written for several daily newspapers across the Midwest, and she covered Pennsylvania state government and politics for The...