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Last PA Judicial Election Saw Record Amounts Of Money Spent. What About This Year?

Matt Rourke
AP Photo
Pennsylvania Supreme Court candidates Republican Sallie Mundy, a justice on the state Supreme Court, left, and Democratic candidate Dwayne Woodruff, a common pleas court judge in Allegheny County shake hands at the end of a debate at Widener University.

In 2015, $15.8 million was spent in Pennsylvania's judicial elections, breaking the record for the costliest supreme court race in U.S. history.

The race was highly contested because 3 of the 7 seats on the state Supreme Court were up for grabs, with the possibility that the court could swing Democrat or Republican.

Big money got involved, including from the Republican State Leadership Committee, a national group that has gotten involved in other state supreme court races. They gave nearly a million dollars to conservative candidates.

Ultimately, three Democrats were elected to fill the open spots -- Christine Donohue, Kevin M. Dougherty and David N. Wecht. 

This year, there is one contested race for Pennsylvania's highest court, between Republican Sallie Mundy and Democrat Dwayne D. Woodruff.

Mundy, a University of Pittsburgh School of Law alum and co-proprietor of a Tioga County cattle farm, was appointed to the Supreme Court by Gov. Tom Wolf in 2016 to fill a vacant seat. This election will determine if she will serve her first full term on the bench. 

Woodruff, a Duquesne University School of Law alum and former Pittsburgh Steeler, currently serves as a judge on the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County.

Two judges are facing retention elections, Republican Chief Justice Thomas Saylor and Democrat Debra Todd. According to Ken Myers with the government watchdog Common Cause Pennsylvania, it's very rare for a sitting judge to be voted out by the public.

As of Friday, an estimated $620,000 had been spent on television advertisements for this year's judicial races,which according to Doug Keith of the Brennan Center for Justice, encompasses a large amount of total campaign spending.

The Brennan Center's data shows a majority of the advertisement money has been spent by Mundy, an estimated $468,000. In her ads, she describes herself as "not your typical Republican," and emphasizes her support for the middle class.

Todd, one of the judges facing a retention election, has spent an estimated $144,000 on an advertisement that highlights her commitment to fighting sexual assault and promoting justice for underserved groups.

Recently, three ads have come out that ask voters if they are "angry about Donald Trump," and urge the public to vote Democrat, without naming specific candidates. The ads were bought by the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, though the estimated spending is much less than the two individual candidates, under $7,000.

Myers says a lot of judicial race money comes from PACs.

"And when the PAC committee makes a donation, you don't even know who is really providing the money, you only see the name of the PAC."

Many watchdog groups oppose PAC money, as it's not transparent. 

Keith said much more money is spent by special interest groups than individual voters in judicial races across the country.

"Average voters are not paying close attention to these races in the way that we're paying attention to governors, or legislators, or presidents," Keith said. "And the folks who spend money in these races are people who have particular interests, who want something specific out of the election."