Contributed by Lisa Bergson.
When it comes to the election of critical judgeships in our recent primaries, Party-endorsed candidates – both Democrat and Republican — dominated. In what is colloquially known as a “jungle primary”, they and four other candidates all cross-filed (running on both Democratic and Republican ballots), potentially confusing uninformed voters. In the end tally, Democratic voters contributed 37% of the ballots for Republican judges, with Republican voters accounting for 32% of the Democratic total. Overall, however, Democrats did substantially better than Republicans, with 60% of the vote, improving on 2017’s primary. To see the individual candidate vote tallies, go here.
Noting that overall Democratic turnout was higher than in 2017’s primary, Carol Spievak, the Chair of the Solebury Democrats and the Deputy Chair of the Bucks County Democratic Committee, credits a combination of intensive canvassing and growing awareness: “There is a direct correlation between speaking directly with a Democratic voter and that voter actually going to the polls on election day.” She remains concerned, however, since the results varied widely, with communities, such as Wrightstown, Quakertown, and Bensalem, leaning heavily Republican. Thus, there is much work still to be done to flip Bucks!
Given the harshly oppressive policies emanating from the Republican party, shifting the composition of our local judiciary has never been more critical. As it stands, civil court cases affecting Family Court issues, like child custody and divorce court; Orphan’s Court; mental health-related rulings, and criminal cases, are presided over by the 13 judges on the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas. Of these, 11 are Republicans and 11, men, some with little to no background in family law, making decisions that can literally be a matter of life and death.
“They view it as a kind of purgatory,” says Democratic candidate Charissa Liller, noting that new judges are “very likely” to start in the Family Court division, which some see mainly as a path to higher court positions. With a three-month backlog in family court, we as citizens must show up and vote for judges with the knowledge, experience, and compassion to work hard and make wise choices for our families and, most especially, our children in need of legal care and protection. As Charissa puts it, “Democrats care about issues, even when it doesn’t directly affect them. They care about people.”
More, because judges do move up through the system, assuring that there is a wider bench of judges who share our values is vital to preserving the integrity of our democracy. As it stands, we can clearly see the power of the courts when it comes to curbing some of the most draconian policies unleashed by the current federal administration. We are fortunate in PA to have the opportunity to directly vote for our judgeships, compared to many other states where they are a matter of political appointment. As State Senator Steve Santarsiero aptly states, “Voting is a habit we need to develop, a muscle we must exercise, along with our brains and our hearts.”
Here’s what you need to know to promote voter turnout:
What’s at stake?*
- Two new seats on the Judiciary, plus one resignation. In hopes of addressing our overburdened court system, in 2017, the legislature created two new openings in Bucks County, plus a slot made available by one Republican woman’s resignation.
- Significant backlog of family and criminal cases. The Bucks County Court of Common Pleas hears Civil Cases. As examples, based on the latest comprehensive data from 2017, of the 1,896 cases involving child Custody/Partial Custody/Visitation, only 727 or 42.1% were handled by a judge, and of the 416 cases of child abuse or neglect, just over half or a total of 262 were so adjudicated, with 57 still pending at year end.
- Judges serve for ten years. These lengthy terms give the Court stability and allow judges to fully develop. But, this also represents a significant commitment to a set of values that may or may not reflect our communities. It’s vital that we show up and vote for those judges who best uphold the values we embrace.
In the Running in Bucks
Democrats running for the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas include:
- Charissa Liller. Passionate and determined, Charissa brings her early years as a social worker in the poorest neighborhoods of Pittsburgh to her legal work, combating abuse and supporting women’s rights. With over 15 years in family law, she has also proven herself to be an able litigator, successfully trying over 40 jury trials during her years as an assistant district attorney. Among the initiatives she plans to pursue are a child advocate program, such as was established in Montgomery County; a mental health court “to get people who need it into treatment, rather than just punishing them”; and better “calendaring” for judges: “With our backlog, they still come in at 10:00, take one-and-a-half-hour lunches, and leave at 4:00!”
- Jessica VanderKam. Having spent her career as a lawyer in Bucks County, Jessica is well-versed in all six divisions of our County Courts. But, her focus has been in Family Court and Orphan’s Court, where she has handled some 1,000 cases before the Court of Common Pleas. Her commitment is to fairness, and she is known for her compassionate treatment of our most vulnerable citizens. More, Jessica has served as a Law Clerk for three Bucks County judges, giving her first-hand experience of what it takes.
- Jordan Yeager. Jordan has devoted his career to progressive issues, particularly civil rights – racial, sexual, and employment discrimination — as well as workers’ rights, including the City of Pittsburgh’s authority to impose paid sick leave upon employers. He is best known for winning the first case in history to declare a state law that authorized fracking unconstitutional in 2013 because it violated the environmental rights of Pennsylvanians. His efforts on behalf of our environment are on-going, particularly through his work as lead outside counsel for the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.
- Bucks County Commissioner and a Full Slate of Great Candidates. Diane Marseglia and Bob Harvie are running for County Commissioner. Bob aims to take a “more unified approach to development, infrastructure, and issues like the pollution at the old Navy Base” that is threatening the health of communities, such as Warminster. “He will do a lot for us,” Santarsiero predicts, citing more support for health and human services, as well as affordable community college, “a path to a better career.”
- Also, be sure and check out Meredith Buck, an impressive local hero, who has devoted her life as a nurse and a lawyer to helping others and is now running for Coroner: “Meredith is a single mother of one and has been a resident of Chalfont Borough since 1998. She received the 2009/2010 Florence Nightingale Medal, the highest international honor that a nurse can receive, awarded by the International Committee of the Red Cross which ‘honors exceptional courage and devotion to caring for the victims of armed conflict or other disasters, or exemplary services and a creative and pioneering spirit in the areas of public health or nursing education.’”
To learn more about the Democratic team running in Bucks www.bucksvictory.com. We are counting on you to Join the Resistance and Turn PA Blue!
For more information, additional resources, and ways to get involved*:
- Bucks County Blue: Great source for info on all races and candidates in Bucks, including upcoming events and voter registration.
- Solebury Democrats: Lively, up-to-date site, with excellent content.
- Indivisible: Provides a wealth of information and ready-made materials, ranging from Elections 101, Voting Rights, and Voting Suppression, Voter Registration, Endorsement Guides, and more.
- SwingLeft: Nationwide organization dedicated to flipping Congressional districts like ours.
- Flippable: Mounting a Blue Wave Tsunami across the states.
*Special thanks to Charissa Liller and her able and responsive team for their time and carefully researched materials.