The Philadelphia Inquirer reports on the results of last week’s ballot lottery for candidates seeking a position on Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas (its general jurisdiction trial court). Forty-eight candidates entered the state primary for ten open positions, and their ballot order was determined by lottery. The article nicely details the consequences of ballot position: candidates at the top have a tremendous strategic advantage in the primary election, regardless of their relevant experience, expertise, or skill.
Judicial elections were the standard for state courts until the mid-twentieth century, but their flaws have become increasingly exposed over time. Poor or incompetent judges are elected, experienced jurists are removed in party sweeps, and public confidence falls as judges are treated as ordinary politicians. Groups like Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts have been at the forefront of pushing for positive change in that state’s judicial selection methodology.
Contested elections can — and often do — produce fine judges. And judges should be accountable to the public they serve, no matter how they are chosen. But the surety of choosing a good judge by contested election increasingly feels like a lottery itself.