Pa. judges don't expect to feel ire of voters
By Brad Bumsted
Published: Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013, 10:30 p.m.
HARRISBURG — Voters' anger at Congress is boiling over because of the government shutdown, polling shows, but it's unclear whether the foul mood will have any impact on statewide judicial elections, political analysts say.
Retention races for Supreme Court justices and Superior Court judges are the top races in the Nov. 5 election, which will include city, county, township, borough and school district races. Two Supreme Court justices and two Superior Court judges are running for 10-year terms in contests decided by “yes” or “no” selections.
“Pennsylvania judges have nothing to do with Congress,” said Justice Max Baer of Mt. Lebanon. “I don't think it'll affect us. I believe we will all be retained.”
But “emotion can play a role in politics,” notes Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.
For the first time, he said, many voters are saying they'd throw out their congressmen.
“An already diminished institution in the eyes of the public is now even more so,” Borick said.
The average approval rate for members of Congress was 8.4 percent on Realclearpolitics.com, which reports polls from various sources. A CBS poll showed approval for Congress dropped from 17 percent in July to 9 percent in October.
The 16-day shutdown, stemming from a fiscal dispute between the political parties, resulted in about 800,000 federal employees being furloughed and national parks such as the Gettysburg battlefield being closed.
“I can see some voters with limited knowledge of the candidates saying, ‘You know what? Let's throw them all out,' ” Borick said.
“Do I think it's possible? Yes,” said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College. “Do I think it is likely? No.”
Only one Pennsylvania justice has been defeated since the state established retention elections in 1968.
Former Justice Russell Nigro lost in 2005 amid voter outrage stoked by the middle-of-the-night pay raise for three branches of government. Nigro had not ruled on the pay raise but became a casualty.
There was at least a direct relationship between a pay raise and state judges who received it, Madonna said. This time, with anger against Congress, there is no link to judges.
In addition to Baer, Chief Justice Ron Castille of Philadelphia is seeking retention. So are Superior Court Judges Jack Panella of Northampton County and Judge Susan Peikes Gantman of Montgomery County.
Wary of the mood of the electorate, Baer confirmed that his campaign paid for a poll that found essentially what the national polls show about anti-Washington sentiment. He declined to release the poll.
“Max has done polling and it reveals that voters, driven by intense anger at Congress, and to some extent state officials, are strongly against all incumbents,” said a fundraising solicitation letter sent on Baer's behalf by John Dougherty, business manager of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 in Philadelphia.
Baer said he believes it's “prudent and wise” to prepare for any eventuality. He said he probably will air a television ad before the election.
It's typical for candidates to use polls as a way to raise campaign money, said Wes Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University in Chester. Leckrone doesn't foresee voters extending their anti-incumbency anger to statewide appellate court judges.
“If I told you it's not a concern I'd be misleading you,” Panella said. But he believes voters will separate the issues: “I have faith in the people of Pennsylvania.”
Gantman said she doesn't hear dissatisfaction from voters as she travels around the state.
“In terms of Congress, we have no relationship to Congress,” she said, noting that voters seem pleased with the “fairness and integrity” of the courts.
“Who knows?” said Moe Coleman, director emeritus of the Institute of Politics at the University of Pittsburgh, when asked about blowback from the Washington fiasco.
“Off the top of my head, I don't think so,” Coleman said. “I think they're mad at Congress, the president and state government. I don't think it will fall on judges.”
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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