The Price of a Judge (Excerpt from 'Philadelphia Battlefields')

(Hon. Darnell Jones II)

We are pleased to share this excerpt from John Kromer's excellent new book "Philadelphia Battlefields: Disruptive Campaigns and Upset Elections in a Changing City" (Temple University Press, 2020) about upset local elections in Philadelphia's history. Kromer is a professor at Penn's Fels Institute, the former director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, and a one-time Sheriff candidate. His book covers the history of insurgent campaigns from the 1950's through the present-day, including Controller Rebecca Rhynhart's 2017 primary, and Jamie Gauthier's 3rd District Council win.

On February 3, 1987, ten judges in Philadelphia’s Common Pleas Court were suspended for accepting cash gifts from representatives of the Roofers Union. Later that month, Pennsylvania Governor Robert Casey requested that the state senate approve ten individuals to fill the vacated Common Pleas seats, based on recommendations from a special commission that Casey had appointed for this purpose. 

Leaders of the city’s Democratic Party organization, angered that the Governor had chosen to announce nominations without consulting them first, endorsed only five of the ten Common Pleas nominees. All five of the party-endorsed nominees had prior working relationships with the Democratic or Republican party organizations, and they were all approved by the state senate for interim appointments to the judiciary. Casey’s nominees for the other five seats, who would later become known as the “Casey Five,” would need to wait for the November elections, at which time they would have to compete, without party endorsement, against other candidates.

Darnell Jones II, one of the unendorsed nominees, had served for twelve years at the Defender Association, an organization that provides legal counsel for indigent persons. He learned of Casey’s endorsement for the first time through a late-night phone call from his friend Frederic Tulsky, a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter. “Congratulations!” Tulsky exclaimed, “You’re going to be one of the Governor’s picks!”

Not long afterward, Jones ran into Kevin Vaughan, an aide to City Councilman At Large Angel Ortiz, outside City Hall. “Kevin said, ‘This is going to be great!’ Then he said, ‘Listen, who’s your ward leader?’ and I said, ‘What’s a ward leader?’ He looked at me and said, ‘You’d better come inside.’”

Vaughan and Councilman Oritz briefed Jones about the need to form a campaign committee and to start communicating with Democratic Party leaders. At the time, Vaughan was leader of the 27th Ward Democratic Committee, and he introduced Jones to a woman who was active in the ward organization and who agreed to help organize a campaign committee.

Benjamin Lerner, head of the Defender Association, offered his congratulations. “We’re so proud that you’ll be the first Public Defender to be appointed to the bench directly from the Defender Association,” he said. Then they discussed a related issue: because Defender Association attorneys were not allowed to engage in political activity, Jones would need to resign.  

Shortly afterwards, Jones got an appointment with Lucien Blackwell and introduced himself. At the time, Blackwell was a member of Philadelphia City Council and a Democratic City Committee leader. “His first question was, ‘What have you done for the party lately?’” Jones recalled. “And I said, ‘I’m not allowed to do anything for the party. I took an oath as a Public Defender. We’re not allowed to engage in political activity.’ And he said, “That’s good. Have a nice day.”

 “I went from being on the highest peak imaginable to being in the lowest valley I could ever imagine,” Jones said. “We realized that not only were we going to lose our jobs, but the party wasn’t going to support us. We quickly became aware of the fact that we were essentially persona non grata in a large number of the ward meetings across the city. They were anti-Casey and anti-reform.”

Jones recalled that all the judicial candidates would routinely get notifications about ward meetings that were being held each night. However, the understanding was, as he put it, “Everyone come—except the Casey folks.”

The unendorsed nominees persisted in seeking opportunities to introduce themselves to the party rank and file. On the way to a ward meeting one night, Jones saw Russell Nigro, an incumbent, party-supported judicial candidate who was not a Casey nominee, parking his Porsche across the street. The two of them were acquainted but didn’t know each other very well. As Nigro exited his car, Jones joked, “Is that what you get when you become a judge?” Nigro laughed, and they walked to the building together. Nigro said, “Come with me.” He told the men at the door, “He’s coming in,” and they walked into the meeting.

That was how Jones got an opportunity to speak. “And from that point on,” he said, “I think people realized, ‘He’s not so bad.’ I was a commoner, I wasn’t this elitist pick. I worked hard to get where I am.”

Jones did not have strong relationships with partners in the city’s biggest law firms or with other wealthy individuals. His friends in the legal profession were more likely to be other modestly-paid public defenders. But Jones had numerous friends and acquaintances at Zion Baptist Church, one of the largest congregations of faith in the United States at that time. Pastor Leon Sullivan was internationally known for his leading role in advancing numerous social justice and self-help initiatives, including (while a member of General Motors’ Board of Directors) his successful advocacy for GM and other large corporations to withdraw from doing business in South Africa while the system of apartheid remained in effect. “No one was more powerful than Rev. Sullivan,” Jones said.

Jones met with Rev. Sullivan, and they discussed his candidacy. Jones was the only one of the Casey Five who belonged to Zion’s congregation, and Sullivan said to him, “You’re a member of our church; I’ll support you.”

So that following Sunday, Rev. Sullivan got up in the pulpit and announced that I was one of the Casey Five, I was a candidate, and he wanted me to stand up so everyone in the church could see who I was. And then he just started yelling out my name, yelling my name, and people just kept applauding and applauding and applauding. It was an incredible, incredible moment.

Understandably, Jones had found Councilman Blackwell’s dismissive remark deeply discouraging. “When he said that, I’m thinking, I don’t have a chance in the world.” But before long, the prospects improved for him and the other four unendorsed candidates. “You’d see editorials in the papers: ‘Support the Casey Five.’ At 6:00 in the evening when the local news came on, they’d have these editorials: ‘Support the Casey Five.’ So things started picking up. People would say, ‘Wow, you’re one of the Casey Five!’ We were becoming known.”

Governor Casey and Henry Reath, a prominent Philadelphia lawyer with a long history of engagement in social activism, went to work raising funds to support the campaigns of the unendorsed candidates, providing the capital they desperately needed. “We were relying on Casey and Reath,” Jones said. “I remember seeing a figure in the paper about the other contributions to my campaign committee. It was people in my church and Public Defenders.” He laughed. “They only raised about $6,000. So thank goodness for the Governor and Henry Reath.”

During the course of the campaign, the unendorsed members of the Casey Five were shocked by what they learned about the uneasy synergy between the Democratic Party organization and the Philadelphia court system. A Common Pleas judge who is successful at the polls is rewarded with a guaranteed ten-year job with excellent salary and benefits, as well as a small staff. That judge can show appreciation for the party’s support of his or her candidacy by providing party insiders with access to jobs in the court system. In 1987, the court system employed more than 2,000 people in positions not controlled by civil service, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. “I don't think there is all that much calling of judges by committeemen on active cases," Gregory Harvey, a Center City lawyer and a Casey Five supporter, told the Inquirer. "What is most at stake is not any broad issue, but jobs."[ii]

Although the Democratic Party slated candidates to run against them in the November elections, all of the Casey Five candidates were elected. Afterwards, some party representatives were not hesitant about seeking favors from him.

Party leaders would ask for this, that, and the other thing. I’d say, “I have a house in Oklahoma that my mom and dad had, and I’ve got friends at home. I don’t need this, and I will never tarnish my reputation to give anyone anything. I’m not going to do anything that’s going to shame my family name. If people want to see me on a case, they come in the front door. I teach evidence, I know what the rules are.”

That caught some people by surprise; but other people said, “By all means. That’s the kind of person we want.”

Jones later became President Judge of Common Pleas Court. In 2008, he was nominated by President George W. Bush for a seat on the United States District Court for the Eastern District in Pennsylvania. He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate later that year.

Judge Jones continues to serve as a United States District Judge. Although the influence of Philadelphia’s Democratic City Committee has weakened in the three decades that have passed since the time of the Casey Five nominations, party endorsement is still considered by many to be critical to a successful candidacy for election to the judiciary.

[i] Direct quotes and information attributed to Judge C. Darnell Jones III that appear in this excerpt are based on a June 7, 2018 interview with the author.

[ii] Fredric N. Tulsky, “Bench Wars: Patronage stakes high in judicial races,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 18, 1987.


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  • John Kromer
    published this page in Blog 2020-09-18 11:36:20 -0400