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Politics & Government

The Quiet, Crowded Primary For State Supreme Court

The primary election for the state Supreme Court is next week, giving voters a chance to pick their party’s nominees to vie for three open seats on the seven-justice bench.

The number of vacancies is unprecedented in the court’s modern history, and the results of the general election this fall will determine the political balance of the state’s high court for the near future.

Sound like a recipe for a closely-watched election? Not quite.
'Literally A Crapshoot'

Judicial elections are already among the least-loved elections on the ballot – at least from the voters’ perspective. Historically, Pennsylvanians just don’t care about them.

“I’m not suggesting that the candidates aren’t qualified,” said Terry Madonna, a pollster and political science professor with Franklin & Marshall College. “We’ve had many well-qualified candidates elected to appeals courts over the years, but the voters don’t know that.”

Madonna said he stopped doing phone surveys about court races in the 1990s because voters knew nothing about them. The polls were useless.

“Actually,” said Madonna, “what they help us with is to help us understand is that appeals court elections are literally a crapshoot.”

Record Number Of Open Seats

One of the court’s vacancies is due to the departure of former Chief Justice Ron Castille, who aged out of the system (the state has a judicial age limit of 70 years old).

The other two vacancies resulted from scandals. Former Justice Joan Orie Melvin resigned her seat after being convicted on corruption charges. Former Justice Seamus McCaffery stepped down after his colleagues suspended him for exchanging raunchy e-mails with others in state government and following allegations of threatening a fellow justice. The departures point to an image problem for the state’s high court.

“I’ve heard a lot of disgust and sadness that two of the justices in the last few years had to step down,” said Lynn Marks, head of the watchdog group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts. “But you can look at it as an opportunity to bring on new blood.”

At recent forums, candidates have emphasized their integrity, their strong sense of ethics, and their ability to play nice with colleagues on the bench. But other things appear to influence the election more: where their names will be on the ballot, any hotly contested mayoral elections that may drive up turnout, and, of course, money.

Experts are bracing themselves for a record-breaking amount of cash to flow to these campaigns. So far, the dozen candidates have collected nearly $5 million (we won’t know how much is being spent by independent groups that aren’t technically coordinating with candidates).

What Justices Do

The Supreme Court manages the entire state judicial system, and its justices decide cases of far-reaching impact. In recent years, that’s meant reviewing legal challenges of the state’s new legislative districts, and deciding whether state law on Marcellus Shale drilling can preempt local ordinances.

In the near future, the court will consider the constitutionality of the governor’s moratorium on the death penalty. Justices are also expected to review an appealed lawsuit claiming that the state underfunds its schools.

Political Implications

The political bent of the court is up for grabs as well. The bench has been majority-Republican for a while. That could change if just two Democrats win in the general. The court’s rulings have not been discernibly partisan. But some think that could change because of the high stakes of this election and the number of far-left and far-right groups making endorsements.   

“So, we have the possibility of partisan change. We have the possibility of a big ideological change,” said Madonna, “all of which could lead to very different kinds of decisions out of the Supreme Court.”

More Information

The Pennsylvania Bar Association does the yeoman’s work of evaluating the six Republican and six Democratic candidates. You can read each candidate’s rating here.

Judge Anne Covey, a GOP candidate, has objected to the “not recommended” rating she received.