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Historically, having ties to the local Democratic Party has tended to help a Philadelphia judge’s career advancement opportunities. But ever since the Democrats lost the majority in the state Supreme Court several years back, a Republican registration seems to have become more valuable to a city judge’s professional outlook. Those paradigms appeared to still be in working order late last week when the justices announced that Philadelphia Common Pleas Criminal Branch Supervising Judge D. Webster Keogh, a Republican, would be replacing recently confirmed interim Justice James J. Fitzgerald III as head of the city court system’s trial division. Judge Pamela Pryor Dembe, a Democrat, was tapped to replace Keogh as head of the city’s criminal bench. Like Fitzgerald, Keogh is one of Philadelphia Common Pleas’ few Republican jurists. As a young lawyer, he cut his teeth at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office alongside Justice Ronald D. Castille, who went on to head that organization before being elected to the state Supreme Court as a Republican in 1993. Keogh, a native of North Philadelphia’s Logan neighborhood, told The Legal that he and Castille became prosecutors on the same day in 1971 and remain personally close. Dembe, whose most recent assignment involved oversight of case management for the criminal branch’s homicide and major felony trials, ran for president judge of the city court system in 2005. At the time, sources said she enjoyed the support of the Democratic City Committee in her bid; she finished second in a poll of her fellow common pleas judges, behind now-President Judge C. Darnell Jones II. Keogh said yesterday that he’s not particularly interested in the party politics that may or may not have played a role in his appointment. He noted that the city’s top judges hail from both parties. “I don’t really see a correlation,” Keogh said. Jones said that Keogh is well-liked and has his utmost respect. “Quite frankly, that’s the nature of the process, and it is what it is,” Jones, a Democrat currently running for one of two open seats on the high court, said of the appointment process’s apparent political undertones. “That may or may not be subject to change, but the ultimate goal in mind for all concerned is to put forward for the citizens the highest quality and caliber of judicial services that can be rendered.” “I think that the politicians are actually less interested in managing the courts than folks imagine,” Dembe said in an interview yesterday. “There’s no doubt that that’s a factor, but I think that Judge Keogh has basically been groomed for the job by being the supervising judge on the criminal side. He’s a very good manager, and I think he’s got a lot of common sense, and I think he’s shown that he can and will do a good job.” The appointment process’s status quo stems from a series of changes implemented at the direction of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Philadelphia court system was laboring under a significant docket backlog. Those changes led to the paring down of the president judge’s influence within the city court system, First Judicial District (FJD) veterans have told The Legal in the past. Through various orders, the justices vested a greater deal of authority with the court system’s administrative judges. The modifications resulted in the current process under which administrative judges are appointed by the Supreme Court and are in charge of intradivisional affairs, such as hiring and assignments. As a result of that arrangement, a Republican-controlled Supreme Court has in recent years been in charge of picking top judicial officials for the overwhelmingly Democratic First Judicial District. Below is a list of some recent appointments to plum FJD posts during the liaisonship of Castille’s predecessor, former Justice Sandra Schultz Newman, a Republican who joined private practice at Cozen O’Connor at the end of last year. In January 2006, Judge Margaret T. Murphy, a Republican who had served in Family Court as a member of both its bench and its staff, was named the supervising judge of the division’s domestic relations branch. Murphy said at the time that the fact that both she and Newman are Republicans had nothing to do with her qualifications for her new job. In December 2005, Judge Paul P. Panepinto, who had been assigned to the civil branch after having previously served as administrative judge of the Family Court, was installed as coordinating judge of the Complex Litigation Center. Like his predecessor, Senior Judge Norman Ackerman, Panepinto is a Republican. The other judges mentioned by sources at the time as being on the shortlist of candidates along with Panepinto – Judges Mark I. Bernstein, Matthew D. Carrafiello and Arnold L. New – are all registered as Democrats. Fitzgerald said he had discussed the choice of Panepinto with Newman. He declined to comment on the role politics played in the decision to choose Panepinto. In early October 2005, now-Administrative Judge Kevin M. Dougherty of the city’s Family Court was appointed to that spot by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court after his predecessor reached senior judge status. Newman told The Legal that fall that as the high court’s liaison to the city’s court system, it was her duty to nominate for her fellow justices’ consideration a candidate for Family Court administrative judge. That November, the retention election campaign of Newman – who narrowly escaped being voted off the bench like her colleague, former Justice Russell M. Nigro – was bolstered by a last-minute influx of roughly $320,000 in contributions from individuals and political committees, according to campaign finance reports. One of her larger single contributions came in the form of $25,000 early that November from the political committee of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ Local 98, of which John Dougherty, Kevin’s brother, is the business manager. When Newman officially announced her retirement from the bench late last year, she hinted that the present liaison justice system might end with her departure. Newman speculated that the FJD is on solid enough administrative footing that a liaison justice might no longer be needed. Jones has indicated he would be pleased by such a development. “Inasmuch as the other judicial districts around the commonwealth have a structure whereby the office of the president judge is one that has significantly more responsibility, we’ve demonstrated that we are ready, willing, and able to take on that task,” he said yesterday. Chief Justice Ralph J. Cappy has said he feels the high court is “a little reluctant to abandon” a system that appears to be working well. And Cappy has dismissed the suggestion that the liaison justice arrangement is politically tinged, saying it has survived past its infancy simply because it gives the justices an “instant means of communication” with leaders of the state’s largest and most complex court system. But in an interview last week, Cappy told The Legal that the justices will be meeting this month to weigh the future of the current Supreme Court liaison-Philadelphia Common Pleas administrative judge system. Also important to consider is the fact that whether the current system is kept in place, this November’s elections could bring a dramatic shift in the high court’s political makeup. There are currently four Republican justices and three Democratic members of the court, but two seats are up for grabs this year because of Newman and Nigro’s departures.

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