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Pauline Abernathy's picks for Tuesday's race

This is the text of the email Pauline Abernathy sent to her friends Friday night, assessing and making picks for Tuesday’s Democratic primary. These are her selections, not those of The Citizen, which does not make endorsements.

May 2017 Democratic primary guide

Is This Any Way To Elect Judges?

Tomorrow, most of you won’t know anything about the judges you vote for. How’d we get here?

Tomorrow, most of you won’t know anything about the judges you vote for. How’d we get here?

There are many anecdotes that illustrate just how insane our method is for picking judges in Pennsylvania, but let’s start with this one. It has to do with why Vikki Kristiansson, a first time candidate for the Court of Common Pleas, was celebrating as if she’d just won the election back on March 17, during a joyous ride back from Harrisburg with her husband.

Kristiansson was elated because at the State Capitol, she’d just reached into a bag and pulled out her ballot position for tomorrow’s election: Number 2.

“I knew immediately that it meant my campaign could go on,” she told me last week.

Wait—you mean picking a low ballot position effectively ends campaigns, pretty much before they even start?

“Oh, yeah,” Kristiansson says. “Put it this way, I would have had to come back and had days and days of conversations just to see if I was still viable.”

Kristiansson, a nonprofit lawyer who had been an Assistant District Attorney in the Family Violence Unit and who had prosecuted human trafficking cases in the Attorney General’s office, decided to seek a judgeship last year because she had real ideas about what our courtrooms need. She patiently cites reams of research about the difference that trauma-informed courtrooms can make.

“It’s about asking defendants, ‘What happened to you’ instead of, ‘What’s wrong with you,’” she says, and it’s become something of a criminal justice trend. She talks about having guides in the courtroom to lessen the trauma of the experience for all, since, she says, “86 percent of domestic violence cases include issues of witness intimidation, much of it in the courthouse.”

But the conversations Kristiansson would have had if she’d drawn a higher ballot position would not have involved talk of trauma-informed courtrooms. No, she would have been talking to family, friends, legal mentors and a vast array of ward leaders and “consultants”—agents who, sometimes for elaborate fees, help judicial candidates navigate the subterranean political world that determines who makes it to the bench. And she likely would have been scoping out cost.

Because Pennsylvania is one of only eight states that elects its judges through partisan elections, and Philadelphia has perfected the dark art of justice for sale. It’s an ugly, messy system that counts on low turnout and low-information voters. Yet it’s also a system that still draws passionate candidates like Kristiansson, who seems incapable of not turning every conversation into a discussion about the nexus of justice, victims’ rights and defendants’ traumatic histories.

That Kristiansson—like so many others before her—might have had to drop out of the race simply due to ballot position illustrates just how dysfunctional the system has become. Tomorrow, you’ll walk into the voting booth and be confronted by a litany of names of those seeking to potentially sit in judgment of you, and most of you will have no clue; many of you will rely on the sample ballots of ward leaders and committee people, handed out at the polls.

Media hasn’t done a good job explaining the meaning of these races, or of diving into the alternatives to our system, like merit selection, whereby statewide judges are appointed by the governor from a list recommended by a panel of lawyers and citizens. The appointees would then be subject to confirmation by the state Senate and after a term on the bench would face the voters in a retention election.

 Nothing better confirms our judicial ignorance than the longstanding fact that whomever is in top ballot position generally wins. And the stakes have never been higher; President Trump’s policies, after all, cloaked as they are in “states rights,” will more often than not be engaged on the local and state level.

The cost of a Democratic City Committee judicial endorsement is $35,000. But that doesn’t necessarily deliver the ward leaders and committee people. For those of us often railing about the political machine, the fact is that party boss Bob Brady doesn’t really control who his rank and file get behind in judicial elections.

Candidates will either pay individual ward leaders and committee people a few thousand dollars each to get on their sample ballots—or be told they’ll be on their sample ballot, because, really, what recourse do you have on election day if a ward leader, as has been known to happen, circulates different ballots throughout the day?—or they’ll be instructed by a ward leader to deal with a consultant instead.

The consultant will charge a flat fee—it can be into the six figures—and he’ll spread some dollars around to get the candidate on sample ballots, or at least to represent that he’s done so. It’s a messy, expensive business. It’s not unheard of for a candidate to run up in the neighborhood of $200,000 in costs; a few years back, one candidate spent over $500,000. Some take out second mortgages or empty out their IRAs.

The system relies on depressed turnout and, of those who do show up to vote, a scarcity of information about our candidates. In this, sad to say, we in the media have been complicit. We—and I’ve been as guilty of this as the next guy—focus on the sexy offices, like mayor and district attorney, when you could argue that judgeships are just as relevant.

Take statewide Commonwealth Court, for example. “Any challenge to legislation seeking to limit women’s reproductive rights, civil rights or gay rights, Commonwealth Court is the court that deals with it,” says Common Pleas Judge Ellen Ceisler, the only Southeastern Pennsylvanian candidate for Commonwealth Court. “This is where you challenge legislation from the legislature or executive orders from the governor. As things devolve to the state level, Commonwealth Court is the check and balance.”

Sounds pretty critical, huh? You wouldn’t know that from how we’ve covered it. The Inquirer, for example, didn’t interview or endorse judicial candidates. Ceisler, the former wife of connected insider Larry Ceisler, was endorsed by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette—over two Allegheny County opponents. The Inquirer, with its anxious newsroom that just had to reapply for their jobs, legitimately didn’t have the manpower to interview every judicial candidate. (In an editorial, the Inquirer did list the candidates who have been recommended by the Philadelphia Bar Association, and those who haven’t been). 

But such lack of coverage can unwittingly endorse the status quo. After all, Ceisler maintains she wouldn’t have even been elected to Common Pleas Court had it not been for the Inquirer’s imprimatur in the first place, given that she was not a party-backed candidate in 2007.

Nothing better confirms our judicial ignorance than the longstanding fact that whomever is in top ballot position generally wins. And the stakes have never been higher; President Trump’s policies, after all, cloaked as they are in “states rights,” will more often than not be engaged on the local and state level.

 Media hasn’t done a good job explaining the meaning of these races, or of diving into the alternatives to our system, like merit selection, whereby statewide judges are appointed by the governor from a list recommended by a panel of lawyers and citizens. The appointees would then be subject to confirmation by the state Senate and after a term on the bench would face the voters in a retention election.

Of course, you can never completely remove politics from judicial selection; just look at how politicized the Neil Gorsuch Supreme Court hearings turned out to be. But the disbanding amid scandal of Traffic Court, the removal last year of Municipal Court Judge Dawn Segal and Common Pleas Judge Angeles Roca, and the conviction of one Supreme Court Justice (Joan Orie Melvin) and the resignation of two others (Seamus McCaffery and Michael Eakin), proves that electing judges puts them in the campaign and fundraising business, inviting corruption and conflict of interest.

 Don’t hold your breath for reform, though. Neither merit selection, which would require amending the state constitution, nor increased media scrutiny appear to be on the horizon anytime soon. Maybe the short-term answer is, simply, more and better citizenship.

For a concrete example of the same, I reached out to Pauline Abernathy. She was a special advisor to Mayor Michael Nutter, had served on the Ethics Board, and is currently the executive vice president of the Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit policy research organization that works to make college more affordable. For years, she’s taken it upon herself to research judicial and other candidates—and share her findings with family and friends.

When Abernathy first moved to Philadelphia in 2000, she was shocked that, on election day, scores of Philadelphians who showed up at the polls pulled the lever for candidates they’d never heard of. Growing up in Newton, Massachusetts, Abernathy learned to take voting far more seriously than that. Every election, her mother would research local candidates, type up her notes and xerox them in a local copy shop. Come election day, their neighbors would make two stops: First, they’d swing by the Abernathys for a copy of AnnaMaria Abernathy’s scouting report, and then it was on to the voting booth.

So Pauline started doing the same—and now her pre-election “notes” on all candidates in all branches of government go to close to a thousand local citizens. “At first, when it came to judges, it was hard to find information,” she recalls. “Now, Committee of 70 and media outlets publish voter guides. Back then, you really had to work to find out about the candidates.”

She’d surf the Bar Association website to find which candidates earned the organization’s recommendation, and which ones hadn’t; she’d scour each candidate’s website, in search of clues to what kind of jurist we’d be getting. “If a candidate didn’t have a website, or bragged that they would work 9 to 5, that was a dubious selling point,” she says now.

Considering the low voter turnout rate and the lack of news coverage of judicial races, it’s easy to get down: We’re the city that founded American democracy, and we’re not too good at it. But then someone like Pauline Abernathy reminds us of the power each of us possess.

And the need for Abernathy’s close inspection remains today. This cycle, she reports, the candidate from whom voters have received the most mail is Common Pleas candidate Mark Cohen. Until he was dethroned last year by Jared Solomon, Cohen was a 40-year state representative who had long been the face of local political entitlement. One year, he hit up taxpayers for $39,000 in per diem expenses, often for days when the legislature wasn’t even in session. Over one two-year period, he billed taxpayers $28,000 in book purchases. Apparently unable to resist staying on the public dole, now Cohen wants to be a judge. “Of course, all the mailings I’m getting from him don’t mention that the ABA doesn’t recommend him,” Abernathy says. “One article I found calls him the ‘master of milking the system.’”

Honestly, I consider myself fairly well-informed, but I didn’t know until last week that Cohen, like some horror movie villain, was back…and refusing to get a job that wouldn’t pay for his books. Considering the low voter turnout rate and the lack of news coverage of judicial races, it’s easy to get down: We’re the city that founded American democracy, and we’re not too good at it. But then someone like Pauline Abernathy reminds us of the power each of us possess. She doesn’t wait for the political parties to spin her or the press to inform her. Instead, she’s her own reporter, seeking out the information she needs to be an active participant in her city. As a result, there will be people in Philadelphia tomorrow whose voice will be heard at the ballot box, and they will have been more informed for Abernathy having taken the time to do that which her 87-year-old mother continues to do.

There’s something inspiring about that, even in the face of stunningly low voter turnout. Maybe it’s time for all of us, citizens and journalists alike, to show Abernathy’s initiative and passion.

Header photo by Liberal Democrats via Flickr

The Philadelphia Citizen will only publish thoughtful, civil posts. We want to be a communal space. But that doesn’t mean you have a First Amendment right to be an idiot. Send us an insulting, offensive and/or wildly off-topic comment and not only will we refrain from posting it -- we will laugh at you before we hit delete.

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