Pennsylvania is one of 39 states where some or all judges are elected. Still, judicial elections traditionally fly under most voters’ radar. Voters are influenced largely by how high a candidate’s name is placed on the ballot, which is assigned by a system of picking names out of a coffee can; they are also influenced to an extent by the Philadelphia Democratic Party’s endorsement.
The coalition is not the first to realize the need for more information about judicial candidates. An activist named Micah Mahjoubian became involved in Philadelphia’s judicial elections in 2001 when he served on the endorsement committee of a local LGBT Democratic club and was dismayed by how under the radar the judicial elections were. “I began to notice that we were so focused on the more high-profile races that we overlooked judges,” he told me. So in 2017 Mahjoubian created a centralized website, Philly Judges, detailing candidate information such as endorsements, answers to a questionnaire he’d sent the candidates, and links to campaign websites. Mahjoubian’s website came up first in a recent Google search for Philly judicial elections.
As a group, the coalition organizing around the upcoming judicial elections polled candidates on items such as whether or not they think Philadelphia’s bail system is fair; their thoughts on the “school-to-prison pipeline”; and the purpose of incarceration. “We want the entire apparatus of the criminal legal system in Philadelphia to be accountable to the people impacted by it—including both people who have suffered major harm and violence from crime, and people who have suffered from the harm and violence of mass incarceration,” says Hannah Sassaman, the policy director of an advocacy organization called the Media Mobilizing Project, which is part of the coalition.
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Janine Momasso, a black woman who identifies as gay, told me she is running for judge in the court of common pleas in part because she is disturbed by the “cultural tone deafness” she has witnessed coming from judges during the decade-plus she has worked as a family-law attorney. She has witnessed judges chastise her clients for not speaking English, refuse to acknowledge transgender people’s preferred gender pronouns, and not be able to understand defendants who speak in an urban dialect. “When you have a homogeneous [group of] people adjudicating in a city that is majority-minority,” she said, “that is a problem.”
In mid-April, Reclaim Philadelphia released its endorsement recommendations, which most other member organizations in the coalition are also promoting; the list includes Momasso. Only one of the candidates was also endorsed by the Philadelphia Democratic Party.
Mahjoubian, who is not involved in the progressive coalition, doubts that its recommendations alone—or his website, for that matter—will be enough to sway voters, who are accustomed to accepting the Democratic Party’s slate. “I have not personally seen any one organization or slate take off in a way that has more of an effect than the party has,” he said. In his view, swaying the elections would take tenacious door knocking. Some of the organizations that now make up the coalition proved capable of this during Krasner’s district attorney’s race in 2017, but thus far, despite activists’ early efforts, the campaign to reform the judiciary is much less visible—judging from media appearances and lawn signs—than the Krasner campaign was.