Donations from lawyers, labor fuel wins for Dems in Pa. Supreme Court race
Millions of the dollars that supported the three victorious Democratic candidates for Supreme Court on Tuesday came from lawyers and labor unions deeply interested in the court’s rulings and the political leanings of its members.
Superior Court Judge Christine Donohue, 62, of Point Breeze, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Kevin Dougherty, 53, and Superior Court Judge David Wecht, 55, of Indiana Township, all won three open seats in a race that broke national judicial spending records with more than $15.8 million raised and set the stage for a 5-2 Democratic majority in January.
“We’re very distressed at the amount of money that was raised and spent,” said Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a watchdog group that advocates for selecting judges based on merit. “It’s exorbitant, and some of it comes from special interest groups that appear before the court.”
The three Democratic candidates combined raised more than $5.6 million, more than double their three Republican and one Independent general election opponents who brought in a total of about $2.3 million, according to Marks’ group and judicial election trackers at Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. The rest was raised in the May primary and among independent expenditure groups.
Looking at just the final campaign finance cycle from mid-September through mid-October, more than half the $2.96 million raised by the Democrats came from the Committee for a Better Tomorrow, which is the political action committee for the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association. About $681,000 came from labor unions, including $250,000 to Dougherty from Philadelphia’s influential Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which is run by his brother John Dougherty.
Michael Dimino, a law professor and elections law expert at Widener University Commonwealth Law School in Harrisburg, said the backers didn’t donate because they’re banking on a quid pro quo, but because the Democratic candidates have views that align with their interests.
“The trial lawyers and the unions contribute to Democrats because they know these are people that are going to read the law in their favor,” Dimino said. In the case of trial lawyers, they may be interested in outcomes involving procedure, as well as rules for lawsuits in civil cases.
Marks predicted that the high-dollar, public donations could lead to more requests for judicial recusals to preserve the appearance of impartiality. The U.S. Supreme Court case Caperton v. Massey Coal Co. found judges must step aside in cases involving donors who made excessive campaign contributions.
The record-breaking sums, Marks said, could set a dangerous precedent.
“One thing I fear the real takeaway from this election is, ‘Well, we have to raise even more than this, and we have to bring in even more special interests,’ ” she said.
This race had significant spending from interest groups separate from the campaigns. The Republican State Leadership Committee spent around $750,000 on ads through Nov. 1, offering the most outside spending to the GOP. The group pledged to spend $1.5 million, but that sum was bested by outside groups on the Democratic side.
Pennsylvanians for Judicial Reform, an independent expenditure committee largely funded by trial lawyers and unions, spent $2.3 million on television ads.
They were the first group to air negative ads attacking Republican candidates.
Chair of the organization, Mark Singel, a former lieutenant governor who runs consulting company The Winter Group, said the ideology of the court of matters that could affect everyone in Pennsylvania was at stake, as well as the court’s intervention in the legislative redistricting process.
The Supreme Court has ultimate approval of the maps that determine state and federal legislative districts, and can also choose a member of the committee in charge of drawing the boundaries. The committee is otherwise made up of lawmakers, an equal number from each party.
“With the Republicans in commanding control of both houses of the Legislature, a Democratic majority on the bench is considered by most to be a moderating influence in the process,” Singel said in an email to the Tribune-Review. “It was important to establish this balance in the process.”
Pennsylvania’s court — despite its elected judges — has a history of nonpartisan decisions, said Bruce Ledewitz, professor at the Duquesne University School of Law.
Ledewitz said the trial lawyers and unions’ donations are not necessarily going to influence cases. Union law is often federal, he said, and there’s no obvious legislation that would merit a Supreme Court challenge, he said. But the court will be faced with “institutional governmental decisions” involving the Democratic administration of Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican legislature in which partisanship may play a role, he said.
Regardless of which party won the race, the addition of three justices will be an improvement to a court that has been racked with scandal, Ledewitz said. Two of the openings were the result of justices resigning in disgrace — Joan Orie Melvin in 2013, and Seamus McCaffery last October.
“With any luck, you’re not going to hear about the state Supreme Court anymore,” Ledewitz said.
Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8511 or [email protected].