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Six judges nominated to vie for three seats on Pa. Supreme Court

| Tuesday, May 19, 2015, 11:55 p.m.
Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
David Wecht (center) talks about poll results with his parents, Dr. Cyril Wecht and Sigrid, during the race for Supreme Court Judge. They were gathered at the William Penn Tavern in Shadyside Tuesday, May 19, 2015.
Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
Judge Christine Donohue (second from left) gets a high five from her friend and Treasurer, Charles Evans, as Charles' wife, Marilyn, and campaign manager Marty Marks looks on at the Donohue house in Point Breeze Tuesday, May 19, 2015.
Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
Superior Court Judge Christine Donohue of Point Breeze
Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Kevin Dougherty
Superior Court Judge Judith Olson, of Allegheny County, has been endorsed by the State Republican Committee to fill one of three vacancies on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Adams County Court of Common Pleas Judge Michael George
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Judge David Wecht talks with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's editorial board at the Trib's offices, Friday, May 8, 2015.

Six judges have a shot at securing one of three open Pennsylvania Supreme Court seats in November, the result of a quiet but expensive primary race.

On the Democratic side, voters chose Superior Court Judge David Wecht, 53, of Indiana Township; Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Kevin Dougherty, 53; and Superior Court Judge Christine Donohue, 62, of Point Breeze. Each received between 21 and 23 percent of the vote, with 93 percent of districts reporting.

Republican nominees are Superior Court Judge Judith Olson, 57, of Franklin Park; Adams County Common Pleas Judge Michael George, 56; and Commonwealth Court Judge Anne Covey, 55, of Bucks County. Each received between 20 and 23 percent of the vote.

“I'm very grateful, above all, to my supporters and volunteers,” said Wecht from his election watch party at the William Penn Tavern in Shadyside. “I think we've made an attempt to talk about the need for the Supreme Court to focus on quality jurisprudence, on ethics and character and integrity.”

The low-key primary became a multimillion-dollar one, campaign finance reports show. Candidates collectively raised nearly $4.2 million from the start of the year through early May.

The open seats will decide the political swing of the court, which leans Republican with five sitting justices. Influential policy decisions loom large in the near future.

Endorsements, name recognition, regional association or ballot position may have affected voters' choices, said Jeff Brauer, a political science professor at Keystone College in Lackawanna County.

“In many of these races, no one knows the qualifications, or whether they would be a good justice or not,” Brauer said.

Yet the race is one of the most influential electoral decisions, Brauer said.

“The Supreme Court makes really important decisions that impact the lives of all Pennsylvanians and businesses and industry,” he said. “They interpret the constitution for us. It's an extremely important position.”

The next court potentially could have to rule on the constitutionality of changes to public pension benefits or a challenge to Gov. Tom Wolf's death penalty moratorium, said Bruce Ledewitz, a professor at Duquesne University School of Law.

And the newcomers' 10-year terms extend through 2020 and the next round of legislative redistricting, on which the court must sign off.

Ethics and integrity will remain talking points as the campaigns continue, Ledewitz said. Two of the seats opened when justices stepped down amid scandals — Joan Orie Melvin of Marshall on the heels of corruption charges, and Seamus McCaffery of Philadelphia because of inappropriate emails unearthed on state servers.

Donohue said she felt that voters heard her message of restoring integrity to the court.

“I have a deep sense of commitment to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, what it can be and what I can add,” she said.

Supreme Court candidates traditionally refrain from attack ads, Ledewitz said.

Partisan-tinged special-interest groups run ads that are more “vicious and misleading,” Ledewitz said.

“The campaigns are run in a pretty honest way for the courts,” he said. “Independent spenders are different. They're not subject to the discipline of the judge.”

For the winning six candidates, the most expensive part of their races is yet to come.

Seven of the 12 candidates in the primary spent nearly $2.4 million collectively on television ads as of Friday, according to merit-selection advocacy group Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.

Court watchers predict the general election will break records for judicial election ad spending: The 2007 race for two open seats and one retention election produced $4.6 million in ad buys.

“Even by Pennsylvania standards, this is snowballing,” said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake.

Melissa Daniels is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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