A month before the primary election, millions of dollars are flowing into the unprecedented race to fill three seats on Pennsylvania's Supreme Court.

Topping the money list of the 12 candidates is Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Kevin Dougherty, thanks in part to a group not typically associated with the high court: organized labor.

Of the $707,931 he had collected through March, more than half came from laborers and at least $302,000 from one union: the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers - led locally by his politically influential older brother, John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty.

"My brother is my brother," the judge said in an interview. "I love my brother. I have the great fortune in having him believe in me and what I stand for."

Money would not affect how he did his job, he said.

"My brother has never influenced me on the bench or in any decisions I've made as a judge," Dougherty said. "After 15 years, I have earned the reputation of Judge Kevin Dougherty."

Lynn Marks, executive director of the advocacy group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said Dougherty is a credible candidate for the bench, but the amount of money from one interest bloc is concerning.

"It's really hard to argue that people's perception of such a system is not corroded when judges can accept huge amounts of money from groups and individuals who could very well come before them," she said.

Through March, the 12 candidates together had collected close to $3 million, their campaign finance reports show - already more than in any prior Supreme Court contest at this point, according to Marks.

Scandal led to two of the three vacancies on the seven-member court - the felony conviction of former Justice Joan Orie Melvin and the retirement of former Justice Seamus McCaffery to end an inquiry into his e-mails.

So ethics has become a hot issue for the campaign.

The new justices could also play a role in the state's next reapportionment, which will use the 2020 census to redraw legislative districts. That process can determine party strength in the legislature, and could mean a lot more money pouring into the campaign through the general election, including from interest groups outside the state.

"The general election, or whoever wins the primary, will be an entirely different election with a different kind of profile, including almost certainly a national profile," said David Wecht, a Superior Court Judge fromAllegheny County who is running for the Supreme Court.

Half the candidates will fall from the ballot after the May 19 primary. Three Democrats and three Republicans will compete in the general election.

Along with Dougherty, the Democrats' other endorsed candidate, Wecht, has collected $576,513.

Republicans have endorsed Superior Court Judge Judy Olson; Commonwealth Court Judge Anne Covey; and Adams County Court Judge Michael George, who has the biggest war chest among GOP candidates, with $546,880.

Judicial races rarely get much attention, and candidates for the bench are restricted from talking about cases that might come before them. They are also barred from directly asking donors for money. And judge candidates often don't see themselves as politicians, though they have to campaign.

So the race can be won - or lost - based on things such as where a candidate's name appears on a ballot. Spending money for advertising, particularly on television, is one of the few ways a candidate can gain visibility.

"Unfortunately, you do have to raise funds in the hopes of at least getting the message out," Olson said.

"It is uncomfortable," said Anne Lazarus, a Superior Court judge from Philadelphia who is the race. "The problem that I see is that there's not a lot of coverage about the races on TV. There aren't a lot of public debates. The newspapers don't have enough manpower to cover the elections in a very meaningful way."

IBEW Local 98 contributed the largest donation to Dougherty's campaign, $100,000. It is also the sole source of in-kind contributions to the campaign, offering $85,000 in services that include advertising, fund-raising, and travel. An additional $55,000 came from the union's Washington political action committee.

John Dougherty did not return phone calls seeking comment, nor did representatives from Local 98 or the union's Washington office.

Union PACs, including the IBEW's, contributed $387,250. Among the unions that contributed was the Communications Workers of America. (It represents reporters and other employees at The Inquirer.)

No other candidate in the race has received nearly as much union money as Dougherty, according to campaign records. Wecht received $34,800 from nine unions. Superior Court Judge Christine Donohue of Allegheny County received $8,500 from three unions, and Judge John Foradora of Jefferson County received $2,500 from the IBEW.

One Democratic political consultant, Gregory M. Harvey, said a campaign's sources of money isn't an issue that decides elections.

"It's not as if it hasn't happened before, as to different races in which John Dougherty took interest," he said, noting the IBEW is frequently a major donor. "It is an interest that has virtually no traction with voters."

Kevin Dougherty describes himself as a passionate advocate for the disadvantaged, and made a name working in Family Court on juvenile delinquency.

"We grew up in a home where social justice issues were important," Dougherty said.

In January, the state bar association recommended him for the Supreme Court, saying he was "fair, open-minded, courteous, and a good listener . . . [and] also is a hard worker and a consensus builder."

As a Democrat, he said, his values naturally align with those promoted by unions. "My hope and desire is that I have an opportunity to share my views and have people understand who I am and what I stand for," he said.

Correction: This story was revised to reflect that both David Wecht and Anne Lazarus are Superior Court judges.