The Democratic Party defends our system of electing judges by insisting on the critical importance of the voters choosing judges. Judicial candidates meet the voters, listen to their concerns, and respond to their questions. Many judicial candidates themselves have said that meeting voters in neighborhoods around the city has been an educational process for them.
However, despite arguing for the election of judges, leaders of the Philadelphia Democratic Party cynically encourage judges who plan to retire to do so at the last minute, thus opening up new judicial seats. Since it is too late for candidates to run in a primary, the party has the power to appoint the Democratic nominees in the general election and thus short-circuit the electoral process. Voters don’t elect nominees. Instead, a small group of party leaders choose them — and, given the overwhelming Democratic voter registration edge, they are almost certain to win in the general election. The Inquirer’s Chris Brennan has noted that appointees for these last-minute openings, known as “magic seats,” enjoy “fast-track candidacies for 10-year judicial terms paying $212,495 per year while not having to raise money for an expensive primary, hire political consultants, or even campaign.”
So much for the importance of meeting the voters.
Nothing “magic” about magic seats
The judicial candidates who run in the primary are interviewed and vetted by a range of community groups which endorse candidates aligned with their values. For the Democratic Party, the main criteria for endorsing candidates appear to be providing pro bono legal work for the party and willingness to pay a substantial sum to the party, ostensibly to defray the costs of printing and disseminating City Committee’s sample ballot.
The chief beneficiary of our system of electing judges is not the citizenry but rather the Philadelphia Democratic Party. Party Chair Bob Brady is quite open about this. The Inquirer reported Bob Brady’s dismissive remark in response to progressive challengers to the results of ward leader elections: “They want to go to court? That’s fine,” he said. “One thing I have is plenty of attorneys. We’ve got a lot of people who want to be judges.”
Brady’s remark underscores what is wrong with our system. It is difficult to become a judge in this city without spending substantial sums on payments to the Democratic City Committee, to Democratic ward leaders, and to Democratic ward committee people. The encouragement of “magic seats” is one of many examples of how the Philadelphia Democratic Party undermines democracy.
In the wake of the January 6 insurrection, there has been much discussion of the fragility of our democracy and the need to strengthen our institutions and the democratic culture which sustains them. The essential work of defending democracy begins by challenging undemocratic practices on the local level.
Karen Bojar is a former committeeperson who served for over three decades in Philadelphia’s 9th ward and also as the author of Green Shoots of Democracy in the Philadelphia Democratic Party, an analysis of the Philadelphia ward system.
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