A controversial referendum question on casinos got a big lift yesterday - from the bottom of the right-hand column of Philadelphia's May 15 primary ballot to the top.

In reviewing a draft ballot, the three retired judges overseeing the election rejected the question's initial placement at the bottom of the list of nine questions that city voters will be asked to wade through.

"The question should be in a position on the ballot where it can be found and dealt with immediately," former Common Pleas Court Judge Gene D. Cohen said. He predicted significant turnout due to the question, which asks voters whether they want to ban casinos within 1,500 feet of homes, houses of worship, parks, and schools.

Fearing long lines at the polls, Cohen said at a crowded weekly city commissioners meeting that moving up the casino question would expedite voting.

That did not sit well with Deputy City Commissioner Edward Schulgen, who functions as lead staff adviser to the panel of retired judges. In accordance with city law, the panel is watching over the primary because the usual overseers - the three city commissioners - are up for reelection this year.

Schulgen, his arms crossed and his face reddening, told the judges that the change would invite lawsuits and might delay approval of a final ballot design. He also said the casino question had been placed lowest because it was the last question approved by City Council and that was how ballot positioning has long been determined.

"A lot of our work is based on the policy, practices and procedure" of the last quarter-century, Schulgen said.

Cohen - who lives in Queen Village, where many residents actively oppose a planned casino site - was unswayed. He and former Judges Nelson A. Diaz and Paul Jaffe voted unanimously to move the question.

"It's odd," a spokesman for the SugarHouse casino project, Dan Fee, said yesterday, but whether the proposed restrictions is "first or last doesn't change the simple fact that it is a bad idea."

Some legal experts have predicted that if passed by voters, the proposal may not survive a court test.

Cohen said he had no personal opinion on the casino controversy in his neighborhood. The other former judges, Diaz and Jaffe, do not live near the two casino sites.

Contact staff writer Marcia Gelbart at 215-854-2338 or mgelbart@phillynews.com.