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Politics & Government

A lot on the ballot, and a lot at stake, in wide-open Common Pleas judicial races

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90.5 WESA
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Races for Common Pleas judge are usually easy to overlook, but voters in Allegheny County are going to have a hard time looking away: The ballot includes 17 candidates seeking 10 seats on the bench. That’s nearly one-quarter of the bench strength of the county judiciary, whose judges hear cases in criminal, civil, and family court.

“The number of seats that are open is unprecedented,” said candidate Lisa Middleman. “What’s at stake here is the future of justice in Allegheny County.”

On that much, she and Republican county chair Sam DeMarco agree. But DeMarco said he can’t support the unapologetically progressive Middleman — even though she appears as a Republican nominee.

“We’re supporting a number of the candidates, but not all, that were elected on the Republican slate,” said DeMarco. “We’re looking for judges to rule on the law, and not try to change laws that they don’t like from the bench.”

Consistent with the idea that judges aren’t supposed to be partisan, Pennsylvania allows judicial candidates to seek the nomination of both parties. And Middleman is one of three candidates — the others are Sabrina Korbel and Bruce Beemer — who landed a nomination from voters in both parties this past spring.

In fact, most of the candidates on the GOP slate are Democrats: DeMarco says the only true Republicans in the field are Joseph Patrick Murphy, who was the party’s top vote-getter in May, and Rick Hosking, who was selected by party leaders as the nominee for a 10th seat that opened unexpectedly late this summer.

But DeMarco invited most of the other candidates in for interviews with himself and a handful of other party leaders, and said he’s confident that voters can support most of them in good conscience. “I want our judges to show compassion, but I also want them to deliver justice for the victims of crimes,” he said.

In addition to Murphy and Hosking, GOP leaders are supporting Beemer — who has served as an interim attorney general and who Gov. Tom Wolf appointed to fill a vacancy on the common pleas bench in 2020 and five others: William Caye, Anthony DeLuca, Mark Patrick Flaherty, Daniel J. Konieczka, Jr., and Chuck Porter.

“These folks all agree that things can be done better,” he said. “But it’s not going to be based on some of the things you see on the left: racial justice, social justice.”

DeMarco says there are two candidates on the GOP slate the party isn’t backing: Middleman —“a bridge too far” for Republicans, he said — and Sabrina Korbel, who he couldn’t connect with for an interview. (“It’s nothing against her,” he said.)

DeMarco said rallying behind so many candidates wasn’t easy: “I had folks that couldn’t get past the fact that some of these people were registered Democrats. I took a fair bit of grief, but it was Republicans who signed their nominating petitions and it was Republicans who nominated them.”

For her part, Middleman said she’s “a little bit sad” not to have been interviewed. “I wished Mr. DeMarco reached out so he could understand why I was nominated by both parties.”

Middleman was part of a “Slate of 8” that ran on a justice-reform platform last May. Four other members of the slate secured spots on the Democratic ballot: Nicola Henry Taylor, Tiffany Sizemore, Chelsa Wagner and Wrenna Watson. The slate has called for rethinking the use of cash bail and seeking to divert defendants from the criminal justice system wherever possible.

The other candidates running solely as Democrats are Tom Caulfield, Jessel Costa, and Elliot Howsie, who like Beemer is running to hold a seat he was appointed to.

Though not every Democrat on the fall ballot was part of the Slate of 8, the candidates are urging voters to back the full ticket. Middleman notes that the Democratic field includes several female candidates — herself, Korbel, and the other Slate of 8 candidates — as well as Black candidates that include Henry Taylor, Sizemore, Watson, and Howsie.

The field as a whole, she said, has “diversity of experience” and a “philosophy that leads them to understand the effect that their judgment has not only on the people that appear before them, but on families and communities.” And while the nominees recognize that public safety is crucial, she said, “The Democratic slate is very mindful that safety has not been assured by incarcerating large numbers of people over the last 50 years.”

Still, both Middleman and DeMarco urged voters to research on their own: Candidate biographies and rankings by the Allegheny County Bar Association are available at judicialvote2021.org.

The association interviews candidates and assesses their background and legal reputations, and it has offered ratings of either “recommended” or “highly recommended” to all but four of the candidates on the ballot: Democrat Chelsa Wagner, who serves as county controller and was a state legislator, was ranked as “not recommended at this time” — a rating that reflects the association’s sense that a candidate could be recommended in the future but “is not yet at that stage.” Fellow Democrat Jessel Costa, who has served as a public defender and as a deputy attorney general, did not participate in the the association interview process and was ranked “unqualified.”

Two candidates on the Republican ticket were also deemed “not recommended at this time”: former Allegheny County Controller Mark Patrick Flaherty and Joseph Patrick Murphy, who also did not participate in the association’s interview process