The Search for Progressive Judges


Professor Jed Shugerman was quoted in an article in The Atlantic about a new wave of grassroots campaigns to raise public awareness about progressive judicial candidates.

After watching these developments with growing dismay, Rick Krajewski, an organizer for a leftist political group called Reclaim Philadelphia, convened about 30 Philadelphia activists in January at the offices of a prisoner-advocacy organization to float a radical proposal. Many of them had been instrumental in getting Krasner elected. But clearly, electing a progressive prosecutor hadn’t been enough. This time, Krajewski wanted to persuade them to spearhead a rare grassroots campaign for the typically sleepy judicial race.

This meeting birthed a coalition of organizations that collectively are raising public awareness about Philadelphia’s May 21 primary election and the judicial candidates running for seven open benches. Some are taking the unusual step of campaigning for candidates who share their progressive values. The coalition includes anti-incarceration advocates and activists for racial equity. Its platform includes eliminating cash bail, increasing sentences to rehabilitation-focused programs rather than prison, barring U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement from courts, and decriminalizing sex work and drug use.

Organizers also want to promote a more diverse judiciary that understands where defendants come from. “A big piece is, one, how are you treating the people who come before you? Are you humanizing them?” says Devren Washington, an activist associated with Black Lives Matter Philadelphia who is a lead coalition organizer.

Historically, that pressure has been applied by advocates for a more punitive justice system. The authors of a 2015 Brennan Center study analyzed television ads for judicial candidates nationwide and found that an increasing number of ads focused on how harshly the candidate would punish bad actors: In 2013 and 2014, a record 56 percent of campaign ads lauded tough-on-crime records or lambasted opponents for being soft. In the past, advocates on the left have lamented how these political pressures have influenced judges.

Now, the progressive activists in the Philadelphia election, and the ones in Texas, are unapologetically supporting judges whose politics align with their own. The primary election on May 21, rather than the actual election in the fall, will essentially determine who will win the judgeships, since the city’s electorate votes overwhelmingly for Democrats, leaving Republican candidates with little chance of victory. The primaries are technically partisan, but only one Republican is running. “The reality is no matter how you pick judges, they are going to be political,” says Jed Shugerman, a Fordham law professor who wrote The People’s Courts: Pursuing Judicial Independence in America. In today’s political climate, he says, progressive groups can have significant influence in left-leaning cities.

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