Judicial elections in Pennsylvania are a pretty low-information affair, even for those of us who follow local politics and elections closely.
They aren’t like City Council or state legislative elections where voters can ask candidates to pledge to vote a certain way on issues they care about – judicial candidates aren’t allowed to pre-commit to ruling any particular way on the cases that might come before them.
The lack of meaningful party labels also makes the process clear as mud. In Philadelphia, since Democrats enjoy a massive advantage in voter registration, all the action happens in the Democratic primary. But when most candidates have the same party label, the label ceases to contain any meaningful political information.
And in parts of Pennsylvania that do see more competitive partisan politics at the local level, the ability of judicial candidates to cross-file on both the Democratic and Republican ballots similarly removes the party label as a cue voters can rely on to gain information about candidates’ beliefs.
At every level, the institution of judicial elections seems designed to frustrate all of the different informational shortcuts voters normally rely on to compare political candidates.
Instead, voters are essentially being asked to judge the would-be judges entirely on the basis of their professional qualifications in a best-case scenario or, in a worst-case scenario, on their name recognition and/or ballot position – something most non-lawyers are frankly ill-equipped to do. Voters aren’t stupid; they’re just unlikely to be familiar enough with the legal profession to make an informed choice in this manner.
Bar associations, both local and statewide, fill an important information gap in the process by interviewing and rating candidates, but there’s some evidence that voters don’t always value these ratings very highly.
Jonathan Tannen, director of research at Philadelphia-based Econsult Solutions, recently analyzed the importance of different factors in Philadelphia judicial races, and found that the Philadelphia Bar Association’s candidate ratings had only a small impact on election outcomes – far behind factors like ballot position, the Democratic City Committee’s endorsement, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s endorsement, and the boost from cross-filing on the Republican ballot.
While this likely understates the PBA’s effectiveness, since the Inquirer editorial board began endorsing only Bar-recommended candidates three years ago, the fact remains that the PBA is having some trouble getting voters to take their stamp of quality seriously.
Part of their problem may be that voters aren’t aware of just how intense the evaluation process is, or what the reviewers are screening for.
The 30-member Commission on Judicial Selection interviews at least 20 people for each candidate they review;10 of those people must be references who weren’t put forward by the candidate.
According to an infographic on the PBA’s website, the commission reviewed 52 candidates this year, who were running for 17 open seats. At 20 interviewees per candidate, that’s over 1,000 interviews. The interviews were conducted by 165 investigative volunteers over the course of more than 2,000 hours.
They research all of the cases the candidate has been involved in, interview all of the judges the candidate has appeared before, and speak with attorneys who have worked for opposing clients and on the same side as the candidate.
“We want to see how believable, how respectable, how honest the candidate has been in litigating,” says Deborah Gross, chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association. “It’s not just ‘Hi, nice to meet you.’ We actually do research into their legal ability.”
If a candidate doesn’t apply to the Judicial Commission for review, they get an automatic “Not Recommended” rating, though most candidates choose to participate. Commission member Eric Weitz said that less than 10 percent of the candidates who ended up on this year’s ballot did not seek the recommendation.
Candidates who are rated “Not Recommended” can sometimes have an opportunity to appeal the rating, if more than 25 percent of the commissioners present vote “Recommended,” and Weitz said there have been cases where candidates were able to fill in some information gaps and get their rating changed.
Because most advocacy groups don’t have the resources for such an extensive evaluation process, there’s a lot of interest from other political actors regarding the commission’s ratings.
“More and more, the traditional groups are seeking to find a better way to work with us, and get the candidates they’re supporting in front of us earlier so that they can have our evaluations before they make their endorsements,” said Weitz. This year, the PBA began announcing candidate ratings on a rolling basis, rather than all at once, incentivizing candidates to apply early.
There’s one major political group, though, that didn’t seem to care very much about the commission’s ratings this year: Philadelphia’s Democratic Party.
In the 2017 primary, the Philadelphia Democratic City Committee endorsed only 28 percent of the candidates on the ballot who received the Bar’s “Recommended” rating – and 63 percent of the candidates who received a “Not Recommended” rating.
While it’s unclear how many candidates had been rated by the PBA at the time of DCC’s endorsement, thus allowing DCC to take that information under advisement for everyone, it’s still the case that “Not Recommended” candidates are disproportionately represented on the party’s slate. This, despite the fact that more than twice as many candidates rated by the Bar received a favorable recommendation than an unfavorable recommendation, and the list of recommended candidates they had to choose from was longer than the list of open slots.
It turns out there are a lot of mediocre lawyers out there who can nonetheless afford to pay local ward leaders for their assistance in getting out the vote.
This year though, the Bar Association will have a small field operation of their own.
“We’ll be staffing people at polling places this year with the Bar Association Judicial Commission recommendations for the first time,” says Matt Olesh, chair of PBA’s Young Lawyers Division, who is managing a voter outreach pilot in partnership with Econsult.
Volunteers will be handing voters palm cards featuring a list of the association’s recommended candidates at a few dozen polling places across the city.
Olesh, an attorney with Chamberlain Hrdlicka, says the plan for 2017 is mainly to test whether handing out palm cards at polling places has an effect. If it does, they’ll be more strategic about where to station volunteers next year. This time around, Econsult is choosing the polling places at random for the sake of the experiment.
Two years ago, the Bar Association attempted a field strategy where they recruited volunteers to hand out flyers at highly trafficked sites across the city. But this approach proved inefficient, leading to a lot of wasted time talking to non-voters and non-residents.
“Rather than taking a scattershot approach to it, we’re doing this in a way that will not only increase the efficacy of the ratings this cycle, but will give us data to use going forward for subsequent election cycles,” said Olesh.
There is some reason for optimism. Another Econsult analysis of how candidates appearing on ward ballots fared in those wards found that the ward effect mattered more than ballot position, suggesting that PBA’s foray into this area could potentially increase the clout of their recommendations.
For those who don’t receive a palm card at their polling place on Tuesday, the Judicial Commission’s list of recommended candidates can be found at http://judges.philadelphiabar.org/index.html
Jon Geeting is Director of Engagement at Philadelphia 3.0.