Philly’s Judge Elections This Month Have the Power To Change the City

Activists are backing judge candidates in Philadelphia’s May 18 primary who want to reduce the use of cash bail, avoid long sentences, and bolster tenant protections.

Maura Ewing   |    May 6, 2021

This article originally appeared on The Appeal, which hosted The Political Report project.

Activists are backing judge candidates in Philadelphia’s May 18 primary who want to reduce the use of cash bail, avoid long sentences, and bolster tenant protections.

Caroline Turner wants to reform the criminal legal system from the inside out—a familiar refrain to those following the progressive prosecutor movement. But Turner doesn’t want to be a top cop. She wants to be an arbiter of justice, which is why the former public defender is running for judge in Philadelphia.

“Judges have the power of life and death,” Turner told The Appeal: Political Report. “You can throw someone in jail with little evidence, they lose everything.” She says she would instead take steps to reduce incarceration.

On May 18, Philadelphia voters will choose eight judges to serve on the city’s Court of Common Pleas, which oversees the most serious cases, and three for the Municipal Court, which deals with lower-rung cases such as traffic violations and evictions. Turner is one of 20 candidates vying for the 11 open seats, a pool that advocates say has more candidates trending leftward than in past elections. And she’s one of nine candidates endorsed by the powerful leftist political organization Reclaim Philadelphia.

“This group of candidates are a more progressive lot than last time around,” said Katia Pérez, a mass liberation organizer for Reclaim. 

Several of the judge candidates who have gained support from activists have a background in public defense and are running on platforms that stand in stark contrast to the “lock ’em up” campaigns of the past. Reducing the use of cash bail, avoiding lengthy sentences, and bolstering tenant protections in eviction cases are some of the promises they’ve made on the campaign trail.

No judge candidate is likely to be “completely in line” with the abolitionist values that Reclaim holds, Pérez says. So when it comes to making endorsements, “we want to know, do they understand that in Philadelphia specifically—the poorest big city [in the U.S.]—what comes with poverty? A lot of trauma. A lot of mental health issues, a lot of health issues. Homelessness. When we were talking with these candidates we wanted to be sure they understood who would be standing in front of them.”

This is the second cycle where Pérez and her colleagues have recruited lawyers to run for the bench and endorsed candidates. The group arrived at its endorsements after interviewing candidates and people familiar with their work, then sharing the findings with Reclaim’s roughly 600 members, who voted on which candidates to support. This approach differs from the political hobnobbing that Pérez says usually characterizes these elections. 

Similar shifts are evident in a small but growing number of jurisdictions including New Orleans, Clark County, Nevada, and Hamilton County, Ohio. “We’ve seen some real progressives elected to the bench. So I think that as … people organize better and start to really focus on that place of power, there is a lot of potential coming,” said Premal Dharia, executive director of Harvard Law School’s Institute to End Mass Incarceration. “I’m excited to see the beginning of what looks like a real movement around judges.” 

In 2018 a group of progressive community organizations, including Reclaim, formed the Judge Accountability Table to inform the public about judicial candidates. The coalition held virtual forums in March where every candidate, including some without activist endorsements, agreed that cash bail was weaponized against poor defendants. “To me it is the result of systemic discrimination and racism,” said Wendi Barish, a labor and employment lawyer who is part of the Reclaim slate. 

George Donnelly, who works for the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Caucus and has helped Reclaim recruit judicial candidates, says that’s a big departure from the status quo. “You look at the bench now and it’s largely people from private practice and prosecutors. …  They don’t have the kind of experience working with marginalized communities, working with the accused, working with folks on cases that aren’t economically viable,” said Donnelly, a former public interest lawyer. “It’s important to have folks on the bench that understand that.” 

Winning a judicial seat is practically a lifetime appointment in Pennsylvania. After each judge’s 10-year term, voters answer a simple “yes” or “no” to choose whether that person should be retained for another term. It is exceedingly rare for a judge to not be retained. So the stakes are high in terms of longevity of the winner’s tenure and because of the power they wield. 

Sentencing is one of the clearest displays of judicial power. Though prosecutors most often set the stage for what sentence a convicted person receives, it’s ultimately up to the judge. A 2018 report by the Abolitionist Law Center found that Pennsylvania had the fifth-highest proportion of people serving life without parole sentences in the U.S., and that Philadelphia courts were driving that trend. Pérez says that several of the candidates Reclaim endorsed made clear “they did not agree with how often the sentencing of life without parole is given” and promised to prioritize alternatives. But none renounced life without parole sentences altogether.

The vast majority of criminal cases are decided without a jury, and for civil cases, judges are the sole arbiter. “In the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia and municipal court,” Donnelly said, “who is on the bench and what procedures they decide to put in place gets to decide who gets evicted and who stays in their homes, who gets to get compensated for the wrongs that happened to them in their workplace I say to folks all the time, there is no government official that affects your life more than the judge overseeing your case.”

In housing disputes, including eviction cases, landlords are far more likely to be able to afford a lawyer than tenants. During one of the Judge Accountability Table’s candidate forums, Michael Lambert vowed that he would refuse to arbitrate tenant-landlord disputes until the tenant has legal representation. He added that there are programs available to help tenants, but they need to be far more robust. “We have to have more attorneys that are available for the tenants,” he said.

Judges are also important players in the movement for progressive prosecution according to Dharia. She points to Arlington, Virginia, where Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti made it a policy to not prosecute marijuana possession when she took office in 2020. Judges balked and required that her prosecutors write a case-specific explanation for every instance—a blanket rule that was never required of prior administrations. 

Dehghani-Tafti brought the dispute before the state’s Supreme Court. Justices rejected her attempt to rein in local judges, saying they could not rule so broadly without a specific case.

“The public defenders and prosecutors in many parts of Virginia have aligned goals, at least to a degree, and it’s really just that there is resistance from the bench,” Dharia said. In Philadelphia, District Attorney Larry Krasner has met with similar resistance from judges, who initially chastised his prosecutors for being too lenient.

But judges are also in the position to hold prosecutors accountable for doing what they promised on the campaign trail. 

“A huge issue with these progressive prosecutors is that they have big plans and policies, but that’s not actually how it’s playing out in court,” Dharia said. 

To this end, many candidates in Philadelphia’s judicial races have their eyes on cash bail. Krasner’s office stopped asking for bail for a number of low-level crimes early in his tenure, but Turner says there are still too many people incarcerated pretrial in Philadelphia. In particular, she disagrees with Krasner’s COVID-era policy of asking bail commissioners to set an impossibly high $999,999 bail—a dollar less than $1 million, which triggers certain holding conditions—as an attempt to implement a binary system akin to Washington D.C. A person is either a threat to the public, or they are not, she says. Turner doesn’t think that Krasner’s office is making well-informed decisions about who needs to be jailed, and she supports eliminating cash bail entirely. 

Bail commissioners don’t have to be lawyers, hearings often last just a few minutes, and defendants often have little to no support from a defense attorney. Turner says that if she is elected, she will advocate for more robust bail hearings to follow this initial procedure.  

“If a defense attorney knew that I was in the Court of Common Pleas, they could file a motion to reconsider bail,” she said. “We have to keep everyone to a high standard.”

Despite the position’s importance, running for judge can be a hard sell to progressives. For one, judges don’t have the same autonomy that an elected prosecutor does. “They can’t lobby for legislation, can’t lobby for social change movements, can’t be overtly political in that way,” said Donnelly. But he believes that judges can still have a political impact: “Judges have agendas and ideologies, whether it’s a municipal court judgeship in Philadelphia or the Supreme Court of the United States, you can craft decisions and make decisions that push a certain ideology and push a certain agenda.”

And the race itself is less glamorous and it’s harder for a candidate to distinguish themselves by their values: It is a down-ballot election that voters don’t often pay attention to. In Philadelphia, the outcomes of judicial elections have historically been influenced by two factors: where a candidate’s name appears on the ballot and whether they have an endorsement from the Democratic Party. The first is completely arbitrary—decided by a lottery which, for municipal court elections, entails picking names out of a coffee can. And the latter requires politicking in circles where public defenders and public interest lawyers are not often insiders. 

“The people that are in the trenches aren’t going to bar association meetings or these political networking events, you’re at the jail. You’re in the courtroom,” said Jessica Brand, the founder of a social justice consulting firm, the Wren Collective, and a former public defender who was an adviser to the Flip The Bench campaign in New Orleans, which supported a slate of progressive judges. (Brand was legal director of The Justice Collaborative, the predecessor of The Appeal Media.)

Money is a barrier, too. When Donnelly has tried to recruit progressive candidates, he has repeatedly found that the finances required to run a campaign were an obstacle—not just in terms of getting enough donations, which Donnelly says a grassroots infrastructure in the city could help with, but rather affording the time it takes. “They would have to take a leave from work, and do a full-time campaign for five months,” he said. For a private attorney this may not be a challenge, but the situation is different for public defenders and public interest lawyers. “Some of these folks had families, some didn’t know if their job would let them do that, or couldn’t go five months without a paycheck.”  

Pérez is aware of these obstacles; she and her colleagues are working to figure out how to help candidates overcome them. “We are very determined to make sure that we work on identifying and building a pipeline for more candidates who are of the community—the immigrant community, the Black and brown community,” she said. This includes financial infrastructure for a campaign, as well as connecting potential candidates with political power holders. 

“We’re figuring out how much of an impact we can have, the movement can have,” she said. “What we’re always keeping in mind is the long-term effects that the judicial system—the carceral system—is having on Philadelphians.”

Also read our preview of the May 18 elections for judge in Allegheny County (Pittsburgh).

This article was updated to clarify that in Philadelphia’s judicial elections only the municipal court ballot lottery involves a coffee can.