Passyunk: Community Group GRASP Hosts Bar Association at Monthly Meeting

Two representatives from the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Judicial Commission attended the Grassroots Advocacy for South Philadelphia (GRASP) monthly meeting to discuss the commission’s process for evaluating and recommending judicial candidates. The meeting, held on Feb. 7, was hosted at GRASP’s regular venue, Adobe Cafe on East Passyunk Avenue near Broad Street.

GRASP is a local nonpartisan advocacy group focused on connecting South Philadelphia residents with their local representatives and political candidates through events, monthly meetings and endorsement of political candidates. At the meeting, the bar association first outlined their evaluation process for recommending judicial candidates before opening up the floor to take questions from community members.

Karen DiLossi, co-founder of GRASP and committee person for the 39th Ward in East Passyunk, said that before and during the 2016 presidential election she would often canvas for political candidates and volunteer on Election Day. She said she would also frequently check the bar association’s website for judicial candidate recommendations.

“People don’t understand what the judges are, or why it’s even elected,” DiLossi said. “Maybe they don’t even know that the bar association provides recommendations for those running.”

Chris Nevin (above), also a GRASP co-founder and committee person for the 39th Ward, said he and DiLossi felt compelled to start an advocacy group following the 2016 presidential election. The decision to host the Philadelphia Bar Association at a GRASP general meeting was inspired by complaints DiLossi heard from residents living in the ward about the lack of available information regarding judicial elections.

Since its founding,  GRASP has held several public events at the Adobe Cafe to introduce local political candidates and community members. In January of 2018, GRASP held a meet and greet for Elizabeth Fiedler, Tom Wyatt and Billy Ciancaglini, three of the candidates running for state representative in Pennsylvania’s 184th District.

The following April, GRASP endorsed and canvassed for Elizabeth Fiedler, who went on to win the general election.

“Instead of worrying about candidates running on the federal level, we decided to get in on some local political candidate endorsements to see what weight that could carry,” Nevin said. “It is much easier to manage endorsements for candidates running at the local level.”

Matt Olesh, assistant treasurer for the Philadelphia Bar Association, and Teresa “Terry” Sachs, chair of the bar’s Commission on Judicial Selection and Retention, said the commission takes a non-partisan, holistic approach to evaluating and recommending judicial candidates.

The commission has a set of ten criteria that candidates must meet in order to be recommended by the commission, Sachs said. Criteria include a record of community involvement, financial responsibility, judicial temperament, and a record and reputation for excellent character and integrity. If candidates do not meet all ten standards for recommendation, they will not be recommended and the reason or reasons will not be disclosed to the public. The rationale for keeping the decision confidential is to encourage more candidates to elect to take part in the vetting process.

Those in attendance at GRASP’s event included judicial candidates Michele Hangley, James Berardinelli, and Anthony Kyriakakis as well as candidates Beth Finn for city council member at-large and Larry King for Philadelphia County sheriff.

Mary Doyle (below), a community member who attended the event, said she often looks to the commission when researching judicial candidates.

“As a voter, I have, on multiple occasions, gone to [the commission’s] website and asked, ‘Is this person recommended or not recommended?’ And I trust that [the commision] will do that,” Doyle said. “I trust that more now, but I wish that for the Not Recommended that we would know why. I feel like that’s very importan

However, she expressed concern about the commission’s decision to keep the reasons for not recommending certain candidates confidential. Doyle said she thinks voters prioritize the criteria differently and could make better informed decisions if they knew the reasons for candidates not being recommended.

In response to Doyle, Sachs said the bar association does not disclose their reasoning for not recommending candidates because they do not want to discourage other people from submitting to their vetting process.

“The meeting was really informative about the bar association’s process,” Doyle said. “I think I would still prefer to know why someone was not recommended, but I understand their reasoning. No process is ever perfect or completely without bias, but they have worked hard to eliminate bias and their recommendations are helpful to those of us who are not lawyer.”

Doyle said she first became involved in GRASP when she attended its 184th District candidate meet and greet event in January of 2018. She said GRASP’s mission of providing the South Philadelphia community with election information made her want to attend more of the organization’s events.

The bar association holds a lot of influence, Doyle said. She said it can be hard to find information on judicial candidates from other sources.

“Having a better understanding of their process allows me to make a more informed decision about which judicial candidates to support,” she added.

Sachs described the Philadelphia Bar Association’s recommendation process as non-partisan. She said the organization aims to inform voters about qualified judicial candidates, and no political appointees are part of their recommendation committee.

“I think voters would like to have more information and will be receptive to it, and I think they will be more receptive when they understand our process,” Sachs said. “So, we’re ready to get the word out that we represent a broad range of everybody in the community, and we try to do a really unbiased, thorough, respectful investigation that gives a really valid recommendation.”

Olesh said he wants the commission to reach as many voters as possible.

“We want this to matter more than it currently does,” Olesh said. “There are a lot of people in the city who don’t even know that we do this.”

Although Sachs believes Philadelphia has some wonderful judges, she feels the city still needs more of them.

“Judges touch everybody’s lives and it’s in everybody’s interests to have qualified judges,” she added.

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