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Lawyers donate thousands of dollars to Pennsylvania Supreme Court race

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James Knox | Trib Total Media
Democrat David Wecht (left) and Republican Correale Stevens are running for two of three open spots in a high-stakes, multimillion-dollar Pennsylvania Supreme Court race.

Attorneys are fortifying the high-stakes, multimillion-dollar Pennsylvania Supreme Court race with hundreds of thousands of dollars in direct campaign donations.

At least $749,200 of the $2.9 million raised in the 12-person race has come from lawyers and law firms, according to a review of campaign finance data — more than a quarter of available funds.

The figure does not include donations of $250 or less, which do not require contributors to disclose their occupations, or donations made in 2014 that candidates carried forward. But it illustrates conventional wisdom about judicial elections: Lawyers show intense interest in the political fortunes of the judges who could decide their cases.

“It’s partly just wanting qualified people; it’s partly that they know them,” said Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a judicial ethics and merit-selection advocacy group. “But don’t underestimate — some lawyers and interest groups want judges who are more likely than not to rule in their favor.”

Three 10-year terms on the seven-member court are up for grabs in November. The election could lean the now five-member court in either party’s direction.

A 2010 study from the American Judicature Society found that in 60 percent of Pennsylvania Supreme Court cases, at least one of the litigants, lawyers or law firms contributed to the election campaign of at least one justice.

Larry Cohan, president of the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association, said this year’s high stakes are likely to increase interest.

“The fact is it’s become part of the process,” Cohan said. “Unless and until someone sees fit to change it, we have to live with it, understand it and, hopefully, people act responsibly.”

Superior Court Judge David Wecht, a Democrat from Indiana, received more than $202,400 from attorneys and law firms through March 30, the most of any candidate.

The support is flattering, Wecht said, because attorneys understand what makes an effective judge.

“The attorneys are often interested in these campaigns because they’re the ones who have the opportunity through their profession to see the judges,” he said.

Judges and attorneys associations acknowledge donations are part of the system. They say contributions don’t affect impartiality. After 12 years on the bench, Wecht said, he won’t “alter my work based on a check or a couple checks.”

Donations from lawyers and firms to other Democratic candidates included at least $153,000 to Superior Court Judge Christine Donohue; at least $175,700 to Superior Court Judge Anne Lazarus; about $82,000 to Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas Judge Kevin Dougherty; at least $77,700 to Jefferson County Court of Common Pleas Judge John Foradora; and $8,500 to Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge Dwayne Woodruff.

On the Republican side, Supreme Court Justice Correale Stevens accepted $40,400 from lawyers and law firms, making up most of the $45,750 he has raised.

Adams County Court of Common Pleas Judge Michael George received $7,000. Superior Court Judge Cheryl Lynn Allen received $2,000 from attorneys, and Montour County District Attorney Rebecca Warren received $500.

Commonwealth Court Judge Anne Covey and Superior Court Judge Judy Olson have not received donations from attorneys.

Stevens said he won’t accept single donations large enough to raise ethical issues, though he did not specify the threshold. Overall, he said, lawyers want to be in front of judges who decide cases based on facts.

“Every lawyer knows you’re going to win cases, you’re going to lose cases,” he said. “Just because you went to a cocktail party for a judge doesn’t mean your client’s going to win a case, and they know that.”

Voters might think otherwise.

A poll by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law in 2013 found 87 percent of voters suspect lawyer donations have “some” or a “great deal” of influence on judges.

Alicia Bannon, counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, said business interests and trial lawyers typically are top donors in court races nationwide.

“The fact that such a high percentage of judges’ campaign contributions come from attorneys suggests that in many states, there’s a culture where many attorneys are kind of expected to contribute,” she said. “It raises concerns judges may be influenced in how they approach cases by the contributions they’ve been receiving.”

The collective $2.9 million raised through March 30 includes a $500,000 donation from the former head of Boyds Bears collectibles company Gary Lowenthal to George, the Republican from Adams County. George described Lowenthal as a longtime friend who is unlikely to end up in front of the state’s highest appellate court.

“He and I share the same vision, and that is to give voters an opportunity to get to know and to hear different points of view from all the candidates,” George said.

Dougherty, a Democrat, raised the most in the cycle — more than $707,000, including $360,000 from unions. Top among the donations was a $100,000 donation from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, the influential union run by his brother John. IBEW supplied in-kind contributions worth more than $85,000 to the campaign.

Newly revised judicial ethics rules advise judges to consider recusing themselves if they have received donations that could raise questions. Jim Creenan, president of the Allegheny County Bar Association, said public access to campaign finance data allows perceptions of improper influence to be vetted.

“If I had a hearing this afternoon, I could check the records and find out whether any opponents have made donations to that candidate,” he said. “You can determine if there’s an actual connection.”

Melissa Daniels is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511 or [email protected].

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