A case for merit selection

City Democratic Party boss and U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.) should reconsider seeking another interim judicial appointment for Joyce Eubanks.

Eubanks, a veteran public defense lawyer and political insider, served as an interim city Common Pleas Court judge, but failed to win election last fall.

Joyce W. Eubanks lost her judicial race in November.

She capped her 15-month appointment to the court with an unusual ruling in a theft case that is being challenged by District Attorney Seth Williams.

The district attorney contends that Eubanks didn’t just make a bad call, but that she actually overstepped her legal authority.

In December, Eubanks convicted a health aide of stealing about $14,000 in jewelry from a Society Hill condo. A week later, Eubanks reversed her guilty verdict — saying she had given added weight to 15 character witnesses who appeared in court but didn’t testify.

One of the character witnesses happened to be former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson, an ally of Eubanks’ former political patron, the late city councilwoman and ward leader, Carol Campbell.

Eubanks said she was acting in the interest of justice. Perhaps. But her move apparently flies in the face of a decades-old state appeals court ruling that says a judge cannot alter a guilty verdict in this way.

The case also exposed some curious record-keeping by the interim judge. While Eubanks filed two written orders — one that referenced a defense motion for a reversal — she later said there was no defense pleading, explaining “that probably was a mistake.”

It’s risky to rate any judge on the basis of one case, but her reversal reveals a judge without the sure-footedness that Eubanks claimed she possessed. More broadly, a review of her cases by The Inquirer found defendants in her court convicted at a much lower rate compared with overall verdicts of other city judges.

These concerns will be moot unless Eubanks returns to the bench. That’s Brady’s plan. He says Eubanks did “a great job” as a judge appointed by Gov. Rendell in late 2008.

Brady wants Rendell to give her another interim appointment. Rendell would be wise to pass this time.
Unfortunately, such appointments often have more to do with politics than legal acumen. It’s not uncommon even for the ruling city Democrats to endorse judicial candidates rated “not recommended” by the bar association.
Indeed, the highly politicized nature of city judicial elections is a prime reason for merit-based appointment of judges. In the meantime, voters need to be more selective than the pols.

If Eubanks runs for judge again, voters will be wise to reject her. Just consider her own warning about judges who aren’t up to par. As Eubanks wrote last year in response to an Inquirer questionnaire, “When a judge is ill-equipped, our justice system does not work.”