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The Politics Of Pennsylvania's Supreme Court Race

Seven candidates are battling for three open Supreme Court seats this election in Pennsylvania.

The Pennsylvania judicial election is less than two weeks away, and tensions are high. With new attack ads airing regularly, many wonder what effect large monetary campaign donations are having on the race. Essential Pittsburgh’s Paul Guggenheimer sat down with Post-Gazette reporter Chris Potter, who has been covering the race.

For conservatives, Potter says ad money is coming from the Republican State Leadership Committee, a national organization which receives part of its funding from corporate interests, including the Koch Brothers. The Koch Brothers, owners of the largest private corporation in America, Koch Industries, are known for supporting conservative groups and campaigns.

An ad taken out by the group says that Democratic judicial candidate Kevin Dougherty “shockingly allowed a young girl to be placed in the custody of a convicted murderer” during his time as a Philadelphian judge.

However, Potter said the ad was only partially true and very misleading. While Dougherty did place a girl in the custody of a murderer, the ad does not reveal that said murderer was the girl’s aunt and that Dougherty was never informed of the aunt’s criminal status when he made his decision. The problem lay with faulty investigation by Child Services, Potter said.

“They [the ad] treat it as if ‘Oh, I placed somebody with a convicted murderer because it just kind of slipped my mind that day,’” Potter said. “And that’s really not the case at all.”

However, the issue of misleading ads does not solely rest with conservatives. Pennsylvanians for Judicial Reform, a newer group backed by many workers unions, also has been taking out attacks ads that do not fully tell the truth, Potter said.

He noted that the group has been threatened with a lawsuit from the Anne Covey campaign for an ad claiming Covey filed incorrect judicial information.

But why is there so much attention being focused on this campaign? According to Potter, what has so many groups interested is the potential impact of this election. There are three seats open on the bench, just enough to swing the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to either liberal or conservative for the next few years.

“It’s obvious that what we’re looking at here is a generational change here in the court,” Potter said.

A shift of this magnitude could not only radically change what kinds of decisions the court make, it could even alter what cases the court even places on the docket. Perhaps even more significant, however, is the issue of voting districts.

After the 2020 census, Pennsylvania will redraw its electoral districts. The district committee is made up of two representatives from PA Republicans, two representatives from PA Democrats, and a fifth swing vote member appointed by the Supreme Court. So, whichever party controls the court, controls redistricting.

More Essential Pittsburgh segments can be heard here.

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