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Women rule in elections for Pa. appeals courts

While women had some success in winning races for Pennsylvania appellate courts, they remain under-represented elsewhere in state politics.

Judge Maria McLaughlin, center, on election day. She won a seat on the Pa. Superior Court. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Judge Maria McLaughlin, center, on election day. She won a seat on the Pa. Superior Court. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff PhotographerRead moreJessica Griffin

HARRISBURG — It was an encouraging development for those who advocate for more women in government.

In Tuesday's election, women swept Pennsylvania's statewide judicial races, a bipartisan show of power in the one corner of state politics with anything approaching gender parity: the appellate bench.

Women candidates won all six appeals court seats up for grabs. (Voters also retained two female jurists, as well as one male judge.)

While women have had success winning seats on the Commonwealth, Superior and Supreme Courts, they remain distinct minorities elsewhere in government. All three state row offices are held by men. Women represent less than a quarter of the legislature, and the percentage of women in the lower courts is only slightly higher.

Going into the election, women held 53 percent of the 28 seats currently filled at the appellate level of the state judicial system.

"Honestly, I think [Tuesday] night's results will just continue to inspire women to run for office up and down the ballot," said Sinceré Harris, executive director of the state Democratic Party.

Trying to understand why women have had success in the higher courts but not elsewhere is "a puzzle," said Dana Brown, executive director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University, which monitors the representation of women throughout government.

There is, Brown said, research that shows that women tend to fare as well as men when they run for open seats, as opposed to when they run against an incumbent. Often, races for the legislature feature incumbents. The appellate courts have had vacancies in recent years.

And scholars of political psychology have found that some stereotypes benefit female candidates in judicial races.

"There is some literature that indicates that there is a positive stereotype that voters hold with regards to women in the judiciary, that perhaps they will be more fair, more just," Brown said.

It's virtually impossible to reliably tell whether the voter makeup is different in Pennsylvania's judicial elections compared with elections for other statewide offices. Gender is an optional category on the state's voter registration forms, so voters are not required to declare it — and there were no network exit polls of voters to estimate the gender breakdown.

"It's not a surprise to us that women sometimes do better," said Val DiGiorgio, chairman of the state Republican Party.

His party offers a training program aimed at recruiting female candidates for office. DiGiorgio said state Republicans sometimes find it easier to recruit women for judicial races because the jobs don't require as much time away from home. He said the party recently approached a woman to run for a position in Harrisburg; she thought about it but decided she didn't want to spend that much time away from her family.

"For an appellate judge, you can travel home at night. You don't have to be there overnight. You can even serve in the court in your own region of the state," DiGiorgio said.

Brown, with the Center for Women and Politics, said she had heard anecdotally that women in both parties have sometimes decided to delay running for the legislature until their children are older.

"I think anytime someone runs, including women, that family is a factor that goes into that decision, whether it's having to commute to Harrisburg or having to make the longer commute to Washington, D.C.," Harris, the Democrat, said.

Still, geography doesn't explain everything. Women remain a minority in the state's lower courts, where judges tend to work in one county or sometimes a single community.

Women represented 31 percent of County Court judges, and 24 percent of Municipal Court judges when the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts collected data this year. They fared only slightly better in Philadelphia Municipal Court, where they account for a third of all judges.

"How do you describe or explain that discrepancy?" Brown asked rhetorically. "No one's really tackled it."

Elected Tuesday were Republican Sallie Mundy to the Supreme Court; Justice Debra Todd as well as Chief Justice Thomas Saylor were retained; Deborah Kunselman, Mary Murray, Carolyn Nichols, Maria McLaughlin — all Democrats — were elected to Superior Court, where Judge Jacqueline Shogan was retained; and Republican Christine Fizzano Cannon and Democrat Ellen Ceisler won seats on Commonwealth Court.