Philadelphia Municipal Court Judge Joe Waters, one of two candidates seeking a Democratic nomination for an available seat on the Pennsylvania Superior Court, believes he can bring a different voice to the state’s second-highest appeals court.
“I believe I bring a working-class perspective,” Waters said in an interview with Gazette editorial staff members Friday before the Indiana County Democratic Spring Banquet at Rustic Lodge.
“I bring 22 years of police experience, I bring 14 years of criminal defense work,” he said.
“I was a family law practitioner when I practiced law. … I bring a voice that’s not there. I’m a row house kid who came up from night school. There aren’t too many night school students on the Superior Court.”
Waters will face Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge Jack McVay in the only statewide race in the May 21 primary.
Born and raised in South Philadelphia, Waters, 60, after high school worked for the Newspaper and Magazine Employees Union at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Following two years of active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps he was appointed to the Philadelphia Police Department in 1977. He served in several of the city’s police districts and was assigned to the Command Inspections Bureau when he retired as a captain in 1998.
While a police officer he completed his bachelor’s degree from Temple University and earned a law degree from Temple University School of Law in 1994. While attending law school he was awarded a Fulbright Senior Scholarship in Police Studies and completed research at the University of Exeter in Great Britain and received an assignment with the London Metropolitan Police Department to assist in reviewing their use of force policies.
“I did a comparative analysis on the reasonableness in the use of force between armed and unarmed police organizations,” he said.
Waters was appointed a Philadelphia municipal judge to fill an unexpired term in 2009 and later the same year was elected to his own term.
“We do all preliminary hearings from disorderly conduct to homicide,” he said. “If it’s a felony charge it moves forward to Common Pleas Court. If it’s a misdemeanor charge it’s remanded back to municipal court and it’s heard by a municipal court judge. Mostly it’s narcotics, DUI, drug cases, preliminary hearings for homicides.”
He is one of 25 Philadelphia Municipal Court judges who handle a busy docket.
“We run 20 (court)rooms a day in the municipal court … and the minimum number of cases is 45 per day (per courtroom),” he said.
“I am not a magisterial district justice,” Waters emphasized. “We are judges. We have authority to send people to jail. … My belief as a judge is, ‘Some people have to go to jail.’ There’s no question about it. But when I send somebody to jail for the first time, I’ve lost the biggest hammer that I have. And the biggest hammer should be the fear of the unknown. You should be afraid to go to jail.”
Since April of last year he’s been the bench warrant judge in Philadelphia.
“We had 47,000 bench warrants active in Philadelphia County,” he said. “And since last April I’ve had over 10,000 hearings and found approximately 3,400 people in contempt and sentenced them to a period of incarceration from five days … to 90 days. … What we’ve noticed is there is approximately a 28 percent drop in the issuance of bench warrants for people for failure to appear.”
Waters said he considers his four years on the bench sufficient experience for moving on to the next higher court.
“Superior Court is an error-correcting court. It’s an evidence-review” court, he said. “And the rules of law, the rules of evidence, don’t change between municipal courts. You have to have the ability to think, to evaluate, to understand what’s going on. And I believe I possess those qualities.
“I also believe I bring something to the Superior Court that doesn’t exist there,” he continued. “I’ve done more than be a lawyer. I was born in a housing project, I’m a working-class kid. I got my education at night by working two jobs. … We need to understand how the Superior Court’s decisions impact on working-class people and the effect they’re going to have.
“I also think electing judges is valid,” he continued. “I’m here (in Indiana). This is a lovely place but I probably wouldn’t have come to Indiana County if I wasn’t running for election. … When I started this (campaign) back in October, I didn’t know a lot about fracking. Fracking is the No. 1 issue in Pennsylvania. Not in Philadelphia. But I know a little bit about it now. And I think that’s important. You go, you meet people, you try to convince them of your attributes, and you have to listen to them and understand what’s important to them.”
Waters said his ability to evaluate and judge and to read and understand will be the most helpful skills for him as a Superior Court judge.
“I also bring communication skills,” he said. “You sit in panels of three (on the Superior Court) and you have to build alliances and lines of communication with the other judges to reach a consensus or decision. ...”
Waters is the endorsed candidate of the state’s Democratic Party.
“It’s important because it smoothes the way,” he said of the endorsement. “The party endorsement gives you access … to the political people. Like the dinner tonight (at Rustic Lodge), those are the people who are going to go out and get you elected. Those are the people who work the polls and stand up for you. They get to make the decision if you’re somebody they want to support. And if they do, hopefully they speak to the constituents for you.”
He recognizes this is not a time for modesty.
“There’s no music in politics unless you’re blowing your own horn,” he said. “I’ve been successful at everything I’ve ever done — in the police department, in academia, I teach college (criminal justice courses), I worked as a factory worker. … I’m as successful as I am for two reasons: One, because people took an interest in me and saw something in me that was worth cultivating and helped me make more right decisions than wrong decisions. And, two, I work really hard. I’m tenacious. Tenacity and perseverance carry you a long way.
“I believe in public service, and I believe in working hard and I believe in making a contribution,” he said.
Waters received a “recommended” rating for a Superior Court seat from the Pennsylvania Bar Association Judicial Evaluation Commission.
His wife, Marijo, is a registered nurse at Jefferson Hospital. He is the father of three children, 29-year-old twin sons Joe and Brian who are both police officers and a daughter, Erin, who is 24.
Superior Court judges are elected to 10-year terms and must retire at age 70.
A seat on the Superior Court became vacant in early 2013 when Judge John Musmanno took senior status.