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Courts & Justice

Pennsylvania Supreme Court candidate alters ad after complaint from opponent

Election 2021 Pennsylvania Judges Kevin Brobson Republican candidate for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court
Keith Srakocic
/
AP
In this photo made on Friday, Oct. 22, 2021, Judge Kevin Brobson walks on the trail by Sation Square as he has his photo taken after attending the Amen Corner luncheon in Pittsburgh.

The Republican candidate for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has revised an ad attacking his opponent after the state bar association notified him it ran afoul of its judicial campaign advertising standards.

A top campaign aide to Commonwealth Court Judge Kevin Brobson said Thursday the modified version of the ad critical of Brobson's Democratic opponent, Superior Court Judge Maria McLaughlin, has begun to air.

The adviser, Bob Branstetter, said it was changed in response to communication from the bar association’s Judicial Campaign Advertising Committee but that confidentiality agreements between the candidates and bar association group prevented him from going into details.

“The bar association asked us to do some things,” Branstetter said. “We agreed to do what they asked us to do.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Saturday that the bar committee directed the Brobson campaign to withdraw the ad or issue a release clarifying portions of the ad that violated the bar's advertising guidelines. The bar guidelines say problematic ads can also be revised.

The amended version of the ad provided to The Associated Press by the Brobson campaign deletes a claim that “one of her largest donors is indicted by the FBI for political bribery” and adds more context about her role in a 2020 appeals ruling to say she cast the deciding vote and sided with the author of the majority opinion rather than the dissenting judge, who would have let the guilty plea stand.

Both versions of Brobson's ad say that in the 2020 Superior Court decision, McLaughlin “chose to void the guilty plea of a drunk driver who admitted to killing a pregnant woman and her unborn child.” In a case out of Blair County, McLaughlin and another judge ruled the defendant had been incorrectly advised by his lawyer about the elements of his crime.

The case was sent back to county court, where the defendant again pleaded guilty to homicide by vehicle and related offenses. He was never released from jail and is currently in state prison.

Brobson and McLaughlin are seeking to replace Republican Justice Thomas Saylor, who has reached mandatory retirement age. It's a race that has drawn millions in campaign donations, much of it used for television advertising.

McLaughlin campaign manager Celeste Dee confirmed the McLaughlin campaign lodged a complaint about the Brobson ad.

“I have done multiple, multiple statewide races, and I have never, ever seen such negative, untrue campaigning in all my life in a judicial campaign," Dee said. “It's why they're held to a higher standard — the judiciary should uphold the law.”

The court currently has a 5-2 Democratic majority so the contest will not significantly alter its partisan composition.

Judicial candidates are restricted by ethical rules about what they can say about particular cases, hot-button political issues or their opponents.

Filling that void has been a steady diet on television in recent weeks of third-party attacks ads, such as one by the Washington-based Republican State Leadership Committee that claims McLaughlin as a justice would worsen Philadelphia's murder statistics and put "Pennsylvania families at risk."

A Democratic Party-funded ad calls Brobson a “political hack” who “threw out thousands of legal votes” and urges voters to “protect your right to vote” by voting against him.

The claim is an apparent reference to Brobson’s participation in a 2-1 Commonwealth Court decision that more than 2,000 mail-in ballots should not be counted in a tight western Pennsylvania state Senate race because the voter did not write a date on the envelope. The state Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, later reversed that, throwing the election to the Democrat and raising protests from Republicans.

In recent days McLaughlin has put up an ad in markets across the state defending herself. She calls the attack ads false and misleading and “the same kind of politics that have dangerously divided us that we don’t need on our courts.”

“But sadly, my opponent is silent while his supporters lie and spend millions to buy the court,” McLaughlin's ad says. “And that silence says everything.”

Branstetter said Brobson “will not be goaded into breaking his word” regarding the bar association’s confidentiality requirement.

“Our campaign and Judge Brobson are gravely concerned that a process designed to sort out disputes between campaigns over advertisements in a confidential setting has been compromised. We respected and honored the process. Others have not,” Branstetter said in an email.