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Courts & Justice

Appeals Court Judge Candidates Talk Temperament, Not Cases

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Mark Nootbaar
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90.5 WESA

Eight candidates for four seats on Pennsylvania's statewide appeals court endured an hour of lightning round questions during an online campaign forum on Monday, but the verdict on their performance will have to wait for voters on Nov. 2.

Judicial conduct rules prevented the candidates from even being asked about specific cases or controversies in a state where last year's presidential election and sharp partisan divisions over the pandemic have repeatedly landed in state courts.

But they did have a lot to say about their own qualifications and backgrounds, each arguing that they would be best suited to serve on the state Supreme, Superior or Commonwealth courts.

“My experience drives me every day, and my deep, deep, deep belief in the fair and impartial administration of justice,” said Commonwealth Court Judge Kevin Brobson, the Republican candidate for Supreme Court.

His opponent, Democratic Superior Court Judge Maria McLaughlin, stated she is “a judge who truly wears my black robe for all Pennsylvanians.”

The question-and-answer format gave candidates about 30 seconds to reply. The time limit was bluntly enforced by moderator Maureen McBride, a leader of the appellate division at her prominent law firm outside Philadelphia.

The candidates did not interact directly with each other and there were no fireworks and no major gaffes. If anything, they all seemed determined to appear as approachable yet serious. Several emphasized working class backgrounds. Questions about their own charitable activities seemed to animate them most.

Republican Megan Sullivan, a former Chester County and state prosecutor running for Superior Court, described the intermediate appeals court as “the people who look at the instant replay,” making close calls after county level trials involving private parties.

Her opponent, Democratic Common Pleas Judge Timika Lane of Philadelphia, made one of the many references by candidates to their parents or grandparents. In her case, it was a grandmother's reminder: “It’s not about you, child, or it’s not about you, honey.”

Commonwealth Court Judge Drew Crompton, a Republican running to keep his seat after being appointed to the bench by his former legislative colleagues two years ago, acknowledged having a fortunate life. He said he tries to remain humble and has worked to put the partisanship of his work as a GOP Senate aide behind him.

“I've tried very hard to prove that in your role as a judge, you need to be straight, you need to be balanced,” Crompton said.

Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Lori Dumas, a Democrat also seeking one of the two Commonwealth Court open seats, said meeting with “some of the most broken young people” drove home for her how little they understood regarding the concept of justice.

Dumas said she tried to help them “buy into the fact that we have a responsibility to them.”

The other Democrat in that race, Allegheny County Common Plea Judge David Spurgeon, said he's concluded that “true justice comes from within” and that “trying to heal is the ultimate justice.”

Stacey Wallace, a Bradford lawyer who is the fourth candidate in the Commonwealth Court contest, spoke of trying to seek justice, kindness and humility.

“I think that how we represent ourselves when we're judges is something that doesn't end,” Wallace said. “It's 24-7.”

The event was sponsored by Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, which will post the video on its website, and by the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Voters generally have very little information when casting ballots in Pennsylvania's judicial elections, and there are no other marquee statewide races this year to draw attention to the General Election in six weeks.

“This is why getting out the word is so important,” said Debbie Gross, president of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts. “We’re electing judges, then we should know who we’re electing and they shouldn’t be elected by just a few people.”

Brobson and McLaughlin are running for a vacancy created by the retirement of GOP Justice Thomas Saylor. The high court is currently in Democratic hands, 5-2, so the race will not change the partisan majority.

The opening on Superior Court is from the retirement of Republican Judge Susan Gantman. It's an intermediate appeals court that handles civil and criminal cases from counties.

Updated: September 21, 2021 at 6:11 AM EDT
Story was updated with details from the debate.