How many lawyers does it take to fund a Supreme Court race?

Almost a thousand, according to recently filed documents that provide a detailed picture of who gave to whom in this year's race for three seats on the state's high court.

Why they gave - and what the benefits may be - are not always clear.

Among the lawyers who collectively gave about $1.5 million to judicial candidates are some who likely will eventually represent clients before the state's high court.

The host of litigators is joined by political action committees, unions, business owners, and regular folks who, from Jan. 1 to June 8, made 4,130 contributions totaling $5.6 million in a state that has no limits on individual spending.

Money is essential in typically low-profile judicial races to build name recognition, and 12 candidates spent at least $2.7 million on advertising, primarily television, before the May 19 primary.

Now Democrats Christine Donohue, Kevin Dougherty, and David Wecht and Republicans Anne Covey, Judy Olson, and Michael George will compete for 10-year terms on the court.

The winners could play a role in deciding state policy on issues such as school funding, labor regulations, and the death penalty. They also could change the court's political make-up, now 3-2 in favor of Republicans, with two vacancies.

Affect the process

What motivates contributions varies.

One Philadelphia law firm, Cleary Josem & Trigiani, specializes in labor law and gave $25,000 to Dougherty, a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge. The firm rarely has business before the Supreme Court, said William Josem, a partner who was last listed as a litigator on a high court case in 2006. The partners supported Dougherty as someone sensitive to issues affecting working people, he said.

The Republican-leaning political action committee PA Future Fund gave a total of $83,500 to Covey, a judge on Commonwealth Court; and Olson, a Superior Court judge.

"We consider ourselves pro-growth," Bob Asher, the PAC's chairman, said. "We want people to get a fair hearing. We want the business community, when they have issues, to have a fair hearing."

One PAC, the recently formed Fairness PA, gave a total of $60,000 to Democratic and Republican candidates, people who Philadelphia personal injury lawyer Shanin Specter said had "good records."

Specter and his partner, Tom Kline, provided 83 percent of the PAC's money. Both lawyers have handled cases before the Supreme Court and currently represent clients in seven active Supreme Court cases.

Specter gave to a PAC because direct donations to a justice from a lawyer with a case before the court could be grounds for recusal, he said. Participating through a PAC is more ethical than direct contributions, he said, because the decisions about who to support are made by participating lawyers from several firms, rather than just himself.

"We have a system of elected judges," Specter said. "If I and others who have a keen understanding of the judges' records leave it to others to affect the process, that seems to me to be unwise."

Others who were large donors were opaque about their reasons for giving. Philadelphia personal injury specialists Ross Feller Casey gave a total of $45,000 to Dougherty, Wecht, and Philadelphia Superior Court Judge Anne Lazarus, the largest sum from a law firm.

A partner there, Matt Casey, said the firm would not comment on political contributions. Casey was listed as a litigator in five Supreme Court cases from 2011 to 2013.

Two of the biggest individual donors, Philadelphia real estate mogul Ronald Caplan, who gave $50,000 to Dougherty, and Florida car dealership chain co-chairman Alan Potamkin, who gave $20,000 each to Dougherty and Stevens, did not return calls.

Neither did two of the lawyers who contributed the most, Neil O'Donnell, of Kingston, and Michael Pansini, of Villanova. O'Donnell gave $32,442 to Dougherty, Wecht, Stevens, Donohue, and Lazarus. Pansini gave $30,000 to Dougherty, Lazarus, and Wecht. Each represented multiple clients before the Supreme Court in the last decade. (Along with his wife, Pansini also contributed $10,000 to Donohue, a Superior Court judge.)

Awkward situations

Court watchers say judges are distinguished from other candidates for office in that the ability to be unbiased is central to their jobs.

"A contribution to a judge is supposed to get you nothing," said Bruce Ledewitz, law professor at Duquesne University. "Obviously, a judge has to decide a legal issue, and it's not supposed to matter at all whether someone helps get someone elected."

The impact of donations on judges' decisions is debated. There have been studies reporting a correlation between campaign contributions and judges' behavior, and even former Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille has said the amount of money that comes in to judicial races can weigh on a judge.

At the very least, there is the appearance that money means influence for lawyers and their clients before the court, said Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts. She also noted that all the current judicial candidates are sitting judges, and that those who lose this year will remain on the bench. Lawyers at times feel pressured to get financially involved.

"It's very awkward for the lawyers, and it's also very awkward for the judicial candidates themselves," she said.

Many contributions are rooted in networks of friends and contacts.

George, a judge in Adams County, received the largest donation of the campaign, $500,000 from his friend Gary Lowenthal. Lowenthal said he had high regard for George and feared his friend would not have been competitive without his financial help.

Jefferson County Court Judge John Foradora was unsuccessful on primary day, but not for lack of assistance from seven members of the Varischetti family, who combined to contribute $102,000 to the Democrat. Varischetti businesses include a chain of senior residential facilities, a real estate company, and an ownership share in the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers. The Varischettis grew up with Foradora in Brockway, a town of about 2,000.

"I would say hardly any of my donations are political to an extent," Foradora said. "I think that was the message from a lot of the people in this area who gave: 'Geez, we've never had anyone on the court. Let's get it done.' "

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