This guide is for leftists, so if that doesn't define your political ideology, then you probably won't get a whole lot out of this. As they say in the mileage business, yours may vary.
If judicial races in Philly get almost no coverage, there's absolutely nothing to go on for retention (unless a judge really pisses off the FOP or something). Often, when judges come up for retention, they just assume that they'll win and don't even make a case for themselves remaining in power. (This is a good strategy! No one ever loses!) But each judge that "wins" retention denies another candidate a seat the next cycle. So each retention-judge should be compared against a hypothetical candidate. Even if things (generally, in the world) have gone to shit lately, most of the candidates for judge now are better than the ones from ten or twenty years ago.
TLDR: Given an average judge elected in 2011 or 2001, you should vote No on retention to free up a seat that can be contested by a left that seems to kind of be getting its shit together.
What's the difference between the courts?
The Court of Common Pleas (CCP) is for criminal and civil litigation; in criminal court, CCP handles the bigger cases: think the big felonies and the very interesting misdemeanors; the civil side is for people suing each other for large amounts of money. CCP also includes Family Court and Orphan's Court.
Municipal Court (MC) is for smaller cases. MC handles Landlord Tenant cases (evictions, etc), small claims (think: my neighbor cut down my prized tree), criminal cases with short prison terms (DUI and the like), and setting bail on criminal cases.
Judges are elected for fixed terms. In the Court of Common Pleas, that's 10 years. In Municipal Court, it's 6 years. When a judge's term is up, they come up for "retention". It's on the same ballot as contested general elections, but it's an up or down vote on whether they should stay on as a judge. If they get more Yes votes than No, they keep their job for another six or ten years; otherwise, they're out as a judge.
To my knowledge, there's one judge that lost retention in PA and no judges in Philly have ever lost. If you're elected once, you're essentially in the job for life.
How should I vote?
All of this depends on your answers to a few questions. This isn't a flow chart and there are competing interests here, so it's more about the weight you ascribe to each of your answers.
Are judges apolitical?
Just vote for everyone "Recommended" by the Philadelphia Bar Association, which rates judges based on "their knowledge of the law". This is, of course, a terrible voting strategy and a plainly facile notion as to how the judicial system functions. Of course judges are political! Politicians write laws, judges interpret them. If politicians are political, then by the commutative property judges are too. Take, for example, the recent law in Texas banning abortion: it is, absolutely, incredibly clever and indicative of a truly impressive grasp of the law. It is also a horrible, inhuman piece of legislation that should be forever consigned to the trash, because it is, and forever will be, trash. Would you vote for a judge that wrote it? Based on the Bar Association's recommendations, the answer is obviously yes. Based on having a soul and the ability to recognize other people as thinking, feeling beings the answer is obviously No.
Many, many incredibly smart and utterly horrible people have put their considerable intelligence toward maintaining all manner of terrible systems - slavery, apartheid, genocide, etc. - based on their knowledge of the law.
Congrats on your working brain. Continue reading.
Does my political leaning have power to affect the outcome of a contested race?
Unless you're the literal president of the Democratic Party this section is kind of moot and you should probably ignore it and move to the next one, which is going to be far more relevant to you, personally.
This doesn't have anything to do with the retention vote - it only bears on the next cycle of contested primaries. If a judge loses retention, they're out of a job and that means we have to elect someone to replace them. That person is elected in the next primary. If your analysis suggests that you have the political power to get a better judge elected in the next primary than the person you're voting against in this retention election, then you should absolutely try to open a seat on the bench.
In an ideal world, you would vote out as many judges as you think you can replace with your people next cycle. This is, to put it mildly, not an ideal world. In each primary, there are a number of judges running for election and you can't predict how many judges will retire, how many will be appointed to something else, etc. etc., so you have no idea how many open spots you'll have to fill. There's no analysis that you can make here that tells you how many seats you should try to open next season.
That said, if you're on the left and think the left can meaningfully move one (1) candidate up by one (1) percentage point and there are about 10 open seats per year, then you should aim to have one additional seat opened up.
On the other hand, my very serious, data-driven analysis says no one loses retention anyway so you might as well vote No and try to kick as many off as possible. YOLO.
Are things getting better or worse?
I'm going to assume you're on "the left" for the following discussion.
Shit's great, thanks!
If you think that things are going well, then you should vote against retention. That might seem counter-intuitive, but consider: if things are going well now, then things were worse (or, less aligned with your political beliefs) before. The judges that are up for retention were elected before and were therefore elected by a more conservative electorate.
This plays out pretty well in the real world - the judges that were elected to the bench 20 years ago are typically more conservative and ran on more conservative platforms (think: tough on crime) than the judges that were elected last year. Since Philly judges are all Democrats (even if they really aren't), this does not map to political parties, but in general if you're on the left, the Democratic party is closer to your ideology today than it was twenty or thirty years ago.
In sum: if your political leaning is ascendant, then you should vote against retention to free up seats that your political leaning can then capture.
Things are getting worse!
By the same trick, if you things things are worst today than ten years ago, you should vote Yes on retention (unless you think the judges elected ten years ago are the cause of things getting worse, then I don't know what to tell you). Generally, a judge elected when you thought things were better is going to be more aligned with your politics and you should want to keep them in office, because the person elected this year or next will be less aligned with your politics. It's pretty simple. Vote Yes.
That's it for this intro. I have researched most of the judges up this election and will be writing about each over the course of ~when I have time~.