Money, Political Parties Influence Pennsylvania High-Court Campaigns

Party endorsements and money made the difference in who was nominated for state Supreme Court in Pennsylvania's primary election.

In the statewide election Tuesday, Republicans and Democrats nominated all the party-backed candidates for an unprecedented three openings on the state's top court.

Democrats nominated Philadelphia Judge Kevin Dougherty and Superior Court Judge David Wecht, who both were backed by the state party, but also Superior Court Judge Christine Donohue, who wasn't.

Receiving the Republican nod were Superior Court Judge Judy Olson, Adams County Judge Mike George and Commonwealth Court Judge Anne Covey, who all carried the GOP state committee's blessings.

Voters also settled a pair of Democratic nomination contests for the Superior and Commonwealth courts, the state's two intermediate-level appellate courts.

Philadelphia Judge Alice Beck Dubow beat Allegheny County Judge Robert Colville, who had vowed not to accept any campaign donations, to clinch the party's Superior Court nomination. And Pittsburgh lawyer Michael Wojcik, a former Allegheny County solicitor, defeated Scranton labor lawyer Todd Eagen for the party's Commonwealth Court nomination.

The six Supreme Court nominees were picked from a field of a dozen candidates, setting the stage for a high-stakes, big-spending showdown that could flip partisan control of the state's highest court for the first time in six years. They will square off in the Nov. 3 general election for the three open seats.

Two of the open seats are the result of resignations by disgraced justices — a Republican convicted of corruption for using state-paid staff to do political work and a Democrat implicated in a pornographic email scandal. The other vacancy resulted from the retirement of former Chief Justice Ronald Castille after he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70.

Dougherty, 55, waged a statewide TV advertising blitz with about $1.5 million raised through Friday, mainly from labor organizations, lawyers and businesses. His brother is the business manager of the Philadelphia local of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which has been a generous supporter.

Wecht, 52, whose office is in Pittsburgh, trailed Dougherty in fundraising with at least $915,000 in contributions. The former Allegheny County judge is the son of pathologist Cyril Wecht, whose inquiries into the deaths of well-known figures, such as Elvis Presley, gained him national fame.

Donohue, 62, was elected to the Superior Court in 2007 following a 27-year career as a lawyer in Pittsburgh. She had sought a party endorsement but failed to win the required two-thirds majority of the Democratic State Committee. Her campaign raised $367,000 but, unlike Dougherty and Wecht, spent none of it on TV and relied on direct mail to get her message out.

Olson, 57, is from the Pittsburgh area. She spent 24 years as a lawyer and had a brief stint as an Allegheny County judge before being elected to the Superior Court in 2009. Her campaign raised $160,000 through last week.

George, 56, was a prosecutor before he was elected a judge in 2002. He was the most successful fundraiser among the Republicans, thanks to a $500,000 contribution from a businessman friend that pushed his total to $594,000.

Covey, 55, spent 24 years in private practice before her election to the appellate bench in 2011. Her public profile was boosted by her handling of a lawsuit stemming from the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal that was settled after the NCAA withdrew the last of its sanctions against Penn State. She raised at least $299,000.

Dougherty's campaign spent more than $1 million on TV advertising through Tuesday, nearly half of the $2.4 million spent by the seven candidates who bought air time, according to two national judicial reform groups that tracked spending in the Supreme Court race.

Wecht spent $464,000 and the others spent less, said New York University Law School's Brennan Center for Justice and the Washington-based Justice at Stake.

"When judicial candidates raise this much money — most of it from lawyers and special interests with business before the court — it gives the impression that justice can be bought with campaign contributions," said Lynn Marks, director of the Philadelphia-based reform group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.

All the candidates emphasized the need for ethics reform in the judiciary.

Pennsylvania's statewide appellate judges serve 10-year terms. Supreme Court justices receive annual salaries that are currently $203,409, while Superior and Commonwealth court judges are paid $191,926.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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