Much at stake as 16 vie for historic 3 vacancies on Pa. Supreme Court
Voters have a chance to change the tenor of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court this year, and at least 16 candidates are jockeying for position to become part of that change.
Three of the court's seven seats need to be filled in the first election since a retirement and two abrupt departures, linked to corruption and porn scandals, upended the usually sedate judicial body.
“It's such a rare opportunity,” said Superior Court Judge John T. Bender, 66, a Fox Chapel Republican who didn't consider running until Justice Seamus McCaffery retired in October.
Six Democrats and 10 Republicans could run in the May 19 primary with the hope of raising enough money and gaining sufficient name recognition to earn a spot on the November ballot.
“This will change the court in ways we can't predict,” said Bob Morris, who runs the judicial evaluation committee at the Pennsylvania Bar Association. “Three of seven is a lot of members. Depending on how those justices view the issues, it could change the outcome of a lot of cases.”
The court, which is down two members, has a three-two split in favor of Republicans. Established in 1722, it is the oldest appellate court in the country and the interpreter of state law. The last time the court had three vacancies was in the 1700s, when it was the Provincial Appellate Court, scholars say.
Lynn Marks, executive director of the judicial reform nonprofit Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said candidates likely will emphasize their qualifications over political affiliations.
“At the same time, they're going to be caught up in a very partisan election process in which money and endorsements are key,” Marks said.
Former Chief Justice Ronald Castille, a Philadelphia Republican, reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 and stepped down in January. McCaffery, a Philadelphia Democrat, resigned while suspended because of the discovery that he exchanged pornographic emails with state prosecutors.
Justice Joan Orie Melvin, a Republican from Marshall, resigned in March 2013, a month after her conviction on public corruption charges. Gov. Tom Corbett appointed Justice Correale Stevens, 68, a Hazleton Republican, to fill Melvin's seat. Stevens plans to run.
In addition to Bender, three Superior Court judges intend to run: Republican Cheryl Lynn Allen, 67, of Hampton and Democrats Christine Donohue, 52, of Point Breeze and David Wecht, 52, of Indiana Township.
Allegheny County Common Pleas Court Judge Dwayne Woodruff, 57, of McCandless, a former Steelers cornerback, is a candidate.
Donohue planned to run before it became a three-seat race. Allen came in second to Orie Melvin in the 2009 Republican primary when the court had one open seat.
Justices are elected to 10-year terms. As of Jan. 1, the salary is $203,409.
The state Republican and Democrat committees can choose to endorse candidates at their winter meetings.
The Pennsylvania Bar Association will begin interviews as soon as next week, basing recommendations on integrity, experience and temperament, Morris said.
“If justices don't get along, it can impact how well the court does its business,” Morris said.
Marks, whose organization advocates for merit selection instead of judicial elections, said she expects candidates to address how they can increase public confidence and improve the image of the courts. But she expects an influx of monetary donations from national interest groups attempting to influence the court's majority.
The cost of judicial races is rising nationwide. Candidates spent $33.7 million during the 2011-12 cycle on judicial television ads, compared with $26.6 million in 2007-08, according to The New Politics of Judicial Elections report, produced by a partnership of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
Melissa Daniels is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511 or firstname.lastname@example.org.