Democrats, Republicans, and special interest groups have poured at least $2 million into television ads in an otherwise quiet race for two statewide appellate judgeships in Pennsylvania, according to a media buyer.
Four candidates are seeking election Tuesday to two open seats on the 15-member Superior Court, which typically sits in three-judge panels in Harrisburg, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, and hears thousands of appeals every year on civil and criminal cases, as well as family matters. Most of its decisions stand; only a select few are taken up by the state Supreme Court for review.
Ads funded by Pennsylvania Democrats and like-minded groups are urging voters to “send Trump a message” by electing Democratic judges, and warn that GOP jurists would oppose abortion rights. The Republican candidates are touting their experience as prosecutors and judges who sent “drug pushers and child abusers to prison” and “kept our families safe.”
Judicial races tend to generate little interest among the public, so the election is seen more as a measure of what voters generally think about the parties. The importance of statewide judicial campaigns was underscored by the state Supreme Court’s decision last year to declare Pennsylvania’s congressional map an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander designed to favor Republicans. A new map imposed by the court helped Democrats pick up congressional seats in the midterm elections. The high court’s party-line decision came after Democrats won a majority in 2015.
The two Superior Court seats became open after Judge Paula Francisco Ott, elected as a Republican, declined to seek retention, and Judge Kate Ford Elliot, a Democrat, became a senior judge.
In the May primary election, Democrats nominated Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Daniel McCaffery and Pittsburgh labor lawyer Amanda Green-Hawkins. Republicans nominated Megan McCarthy King, a Chester County assistant district attorney, and Cumberland County Court Judge Christylee Peck.
The state Supreme Court’s gerrymandering ruling is “one of many reasons we’re working very hard to make sure” King and Peck are elected, said Charlie O’Neill, deputy executive director of the Pennsylvania GOP.
Superior Court judges are elected to 10-year terms, after which they face uncontested retention elections and are paid an annual salary of $199,114. (Four appellate judges face retention elections this year.)
Also on the ballot will be candidates for Common Pleas Court, the court of general trial jurisdiction. In Philadelphia, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 7-1 ratio, seven Democrats are running uncontested. A Democrat is running uncontested for Municipal Court.
Fifteen local Philadelphia judges also face retention elections.
While the Philadelphia judicial races were essentially decided in the primary, the statewide election is drawing money and attention. Judicial candidates cannot solicit campaign contributions, but their authorized campaign committees do.
The Democratic candidates for Superior Court have raised about $1.3 million to date, or about twice as much as the Republicans, according to campaign finance reports filed last week. However, Peck’s most recent filing wasn’t yet available online Wednesday.
The Democrats’ biggest financial supporters are labor unions and trial lawyers. McCaffery’s campaign has received $160,000 from Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and more than $500,000 from the Philadelphia trial lawyers’ PAC, records show.
A Democratic group that backed Mayor Jim Kenney’s primary victory in May is now spending money on attack ads against King. The group, Forward Together Philadelphia, reported raising money from the trial lawyers’ PAC. Forward Together had previously received $1 million from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg during Kenney’s primary race.
The Republican campaigns and outside spending are being bankrolled largely by Jeff Yass, a cofounder of the Bala Cynwyd-based investment company Susquehanna International Group, and real estate investor Clay Hamlin III, founder of the Bryn Mawr-based firm LBCW Investments, records show.
Yass, a school-choice advocate who backed Democratic State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams’ 2010 gubernatorial campaign and 2015 bid for Philadelphia mayor, in July contributed $1.25 million to a group called Students First PAC. A few weeks later, Students First donated $1 million to a newly formed PAC that later routed $400,000 to a GOP group called Commonwealth Leaders Fund.
Hamlin also cut a $250,000 check for the fund, which has since contributed more than $700,000 to the two Republican campaigns, the state GOP, and a PAC that is airing TV ads statewide. Yass’ and Hamlin’s contributions account for about 86% of Commonwealth Leaders’ fund-raising haul.
Hamlin didn’t return messages seeking comment. Yass couldn’t be reached.
Matt Brouillette, chairman of Commonwealth Leaders Fund, said the group “appreciates the support” from donors “around the state who share our mission of electing pro-free enterprise and rule-of-law candidates.”
The Pennsylvania Bar Association recommended each candidate except Green-Hawkins, a longtime attorney for the Steelworkers union, citing her relative lack of trial experience.
McCaffery, a former assistant district attorney in Philadelphia, was elected to Common Pleas Court in 2013.
King has worked for the child abuse unit in the Chester County District Attorney’s Office and previously worked for the Lancaster County district attorney.
Peck, a former senior district attorney in Cumberland County, was elected to the bench in 2011.