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Democrats sweep Pennsylvania Supreme Court race

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Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Superior Court Judge Christine Donohue celebrates election returns in her race for Supreme Court at a gathering at her Point Breeze home on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015. (Trib photo)
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Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Superior Court Judge Christine Donohue looks over election returns in her race for Supreme Court at her Point Breeze home on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015.
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Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
Supreme Court candidate Judge David Wecht, of Indiana Township, and son Jacob Wecht, 15, at Wecht's election watch party at Soba in Shadyside Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015.
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Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
Supreme Court candidate Judge David Wecht, of Indiana Township, at his election watch party at Soba in Shadyside Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015.
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Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
Supreme Court candidate Judge David Wecht, of Indiana Township, watches election results with his dad, Cyril Wecht, at his election watch party at Soba in Shadyside Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015.
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Superior Court Judge Christine Donohue of Point Breeze
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Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
Superior Court Judge David Wecht of Indiana Township.
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Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Kevin Dougherty
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Adams County Court of Common Pleas Judge Michael George
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Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Paul Panepinto is running as an independent.

Pennsylvania Democrats appeared to make history on Tuesday night.

The party’s three candidates for state Supreme Court seemed to clinch three open seats from the moment the results started rolling in, flipping the body’s partisan lean from Republican.

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 each received between 18 percent and 19 percent of the vote with about 82 percent of the state’s precincts reporting, according to unofficial Department of State election returns.

Wecht spent most of the evening at his victory party at Soba restaurant in Shadyside huddled with his father, famed forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht, in front of his laptop, watching election returns.

“I am very honored and humbled by the support, and I look forward to returning transparency to the courts,” he said.

Donohue has served as a Superior Court judge after 27 years of practicing law. Throughout her campaign, she noted her adherence to judicial ethics, citing experience as a member of the Judicial Conduct Board, the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court and the Pennsylvania Board of Law Examiners.

“I am overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from the people of Pennsylvania and look forward to honoring their trust as a Supreme Court justice for our great commonwealth,” she said.

Wecht and Donohue’s victories mean Western Pennsylvania will have a majority representation on the seven-member court; they join Democratic Justices Debra Todd of Cranberry and Max Baer of Mt. Lebanon. Chief Justice Thomas Saylor and Justice J. Michael Eakin are Republicans from Cumberland County.

Much of the race focused on the ethical integrity of the candidates, given the court’s recent spate of scandals. Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin was convicted of campaign corruption charges in 2013, and Justice Seamus McCaffery resigned last fall amid accusations of receiving pornographic and inappropriate emails.

Rob Gleason, chairman of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, chalked up his party’s defeat to the Democrats’ financial support.

“Politics is always about money, and the unions and trial lawyers were able to raise a considerable amount more money than we were, giving them the ability to get their message to the people, and we were unable to,” Gleason said.

Election watchers said the race shattered judicial spending records. Spending totaled more than $15.8 million, according to a study by judicial election watchers Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. The previous record was $15.19 million in a 2004 Illinois race.

The three Democrats raised a combined $5.6 million, compared to $2.3 million for the three Republicans. Dougherty, as the administrative judge of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, has overseen the state’s largest civil and criminal trial court. Throughout the campaign, he led in fundraising, pulling in more than $3.6 million from the start of the year through mid-October.

Despite anticipated low voter turnout, the yearlong run-up to this race was competitive, crowded and expensive. The May primary drew a dozen candidates. Positive and negative ads blared across Pennsylvania’s television screens in recent weeks. Democrats were aided by the independent expenditures of Pennsylvanians for Judicial Reform, a lawyer-funded group that aired attack ads against the Republicans. Michael Bronstein, a Democratic ad strategist of Philadelphia-based Bronstein and Weaver, said the advertisements helped boost the race’s profile.

“We all knew this was going to be a high level of spending,” he said. “The message is out there that it’s something really important that is happening in our state.”

The victories mean Democrats are likely to retain control of the court during the state’s next redistricting process. Todd, a Democrat, will be the sole member of the current court potentially still on it in 2020 since Baer, Saylor and Eakin will hit the state’s mandatory retirement age of 70 before then.

During the last round, the Republican-leaning court chose the fifth member of the redistricting committee that draws legislative and congressional lines. That was why Pittsburgh 9th Ward Democratic Chairman Ron Deutsch urged his members to vote.

“We need to get that back because (Republicans) have gerrymandered it where they control the House and they control the Senate,” he said. “We need to get our Democratic people elected.”

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at [email protected] or 412-380-8511. Staff writer Salena Zito contributed to this report.

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