Pennsylvania Judiciary Making History—In Good Ways and Bad

In response to record-breaking judicial election spending, and an unprecedented series of scandals involving supreme court justices, reform-minded folks in Pennsylvania are making historic strides toward change.

The November 3 election for three open seats on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is on pace to shatter previous records for money in the state’s judicial races. According to a report from Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice, candidate fundraising for the primary and general elections totals $9.8 million so far, with $11.5 million in overall spending. $6.7 million has gone to TV ad spending, with the tone of the ads turning increasingly nasty as the election approaches.

Two independent expenditure groups are leading the outside spending in these races. The Republican State Leadership Committee has put more than $1 million into ads that attack a Democratic candidate and support two Republicans; on the other side, a group called Pennsylvanians for Judicial Reform has raised more than $2.2 million to challenge the three Republican candidates.

At the same time, the state has not seen three supreme court seats on the ballot in more than 300 years. Two of the vacancies were created when justices resigned in the face of scandal. Justice Joan Orie Melvin left the court in 2013 after being found guilty of public corruption in her 2009 race, and Justice Seamus McCaffery resigned late last year following allegations that he circulated inappropriate emails. Another justice has recently been implicated in the email scandal and urged to step down.

It is likely not a coincidence that for the first time in the state’s history, the Pennsylvania general assembly has advanced a proposal to move away from electing judges. On October 20, the house judiciary committee approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would establish a commission-based gubernatorial appointment process (i.e., merit selection), with senate confirmation, for the state’s appellate judges. Constitutional amendments must be approved in successive legislative sessions and then ratified by voters, but reformers are optimistic, describing the current climate as “the perfect storm for reform.”

One organization—Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts—has been working for judicial selection reform, among other court improvements, since the late 1980s. According to Executive Director Lynn Marks, “Pennsylvanians deserve a judicial selection system that is designed to get the most qualified, fair and impartial judges. It’s time to get judges out of the campaign and fundraising business.”