Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 5. You may not have even noticed there’s an Election Day right around the corner because the attention surrounding this particular election has been minimal. That’s largely because there are no high-profile races on the ballot this year, but there is a judicial retention election.
If you’re not familiar with the concept of state court judicial retention elections — also referred to as merit retention elections — you’re not alone. They’re confusing and rarely make the headlines. The truth is, few people understand exactly what they are and how they work and, as a result, precious few people vote in them.
But learning about retention elections and voting in them is extremely important because these elections are the mechanism that we, as citizens, have to either keep qualified judges on the bench or remove unqualified ones.
Having qualified judges in place is crucial if our judicial system is to function as it is supposed to. Having only the best judges on the bench helps make sure that the judicial system is fair for all citizens, regardless of their religion, race, gender, social status, or any other factor.
For the readers of this publication, the timing of this year’s retention election is especially meaningful.
No, qualified judges can’t necessarily prevent violence. But judges do play a vital role in the administration of justice when tragedies and violence occur. Justice following a tragedy is likely never more on the minds of those in the Jewish community than right now, as we remember the one-year anniversary of the Tree of Life shooting.
So, yes, retention elections are important. But how do they work?
When a candidate runs for judge for the first time, he or she is running for a 10-year term. Those are contested races, and the candidates are affiliated with political parties. They’re a lot more of what you’d probably think of as “normal” elections.
Here’s where it gets a little different. After the initial 10-year term is up, a judge does not run for re-election against a challenger, as in most other races. Instead, he or she runs for retention.
These judges run unopposed. The voting public is asked to decide whether each of the judges up for retention should remain a judge, and they’re simply asked to vote “yes” or “no.” If the majority of the voters vote “yes” then the judge remains on the bench for another 10 years.
The retention system has a lot of positives. For one thing, it takes partisan politics out of the election. This recognizes the unique need for judges to remain independent and allows our judges to focus on their jobs and not on campaigning.
It would be awkward, uncomfortable and not in the best interest of the public for sitting judges to be out in the public eye, campaigning, taking sides on political issues and aligning themselves with political parties. After all, independence is a fundamental pillar of the judiciary.
One negative aspect of the system, however, is that many community members are not exposed to our judges enough to know whether or not they’re doing a good job and therefore worthy of retention. That makes it hard to make an informed decision in the voting booth.
The lawyers who appear before these judges have an entirely different, more informed point of view, simply by the nature of their roles as attorneys.
So how can lawyers’ insights on our judges be shared with the public?
Look to the Allegheny County Bar Association. With nearly 6,000 members, the ACBA is the largest legal trade association in Western Pennsylvania.
Before each retention election, the ACBA surveys its entire membership, asking these lawyers whether they feel each Allegheny County judge who is up for retention should be retained. The attorneys are asked to consider each judge’s performance and judicial temperament. Similar to the retention elections, it is a straight “up or down” vote. The ACBA then tallies these informed opinions and shares them with the public in the form of formal recommendations.
This year there are 12 Allegheny County judges up for retention: one in the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, one in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania and 10 in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. The attorneys of the ACBA have recommended all 12 of these judges for retention.
I encourage you to visit JudicialVote19.org, a website set up by the ACBA specifically for the purpose of educating the public about judicial elections. There, you can see the names of all 12 recommended judges and gather additional information on this year’s election.
The importance of keeping qualified judges on the bench can’t be understated. Please join me — and the Pittsburgh legal community — in voting “yes” on Nov. 5 to retain these 12 judges. pjc
Bryan Neft, a member of Beth El Congregation, is an attorney at Spillman Thomas and Battle and is immediate past president of the Allegheny County Bar Association.