In debate, Supreme Court candidates vow integrity

Supreme Court Pennsylvania
From right: State Superior Court Judge Christine Donohue; state Superior Court Judge David Wecht, Philadelphia Judge Paul Panepinto; state Superior Court Judge Judith Olson; Adams County Judge Michael George; Philadelphia Judge Kevin Dougherty; and state Commonwealth Court Judge Anne Covey participate in a Pennsylvania Supreme Court debate Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015, at the Widener University Commonwealth Law School in Harrisburg. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

HARRISBURG - In their first and possibly only debate, the seven candidates competing to fill three seats in a historic election for Pennsylvania's Supreme Court vowed Wednesday to restore credibility and honor to the beleaguered institution.

During the forum at Widener University Law School, the potential justices began touting their integrity and accountability almost from the opening bell.

It's "a sad era for our court system to have to go through," said Paul Panepinto, a Philadelphia judge and the only candidate running as an independent.

"I believe the Supreme Court is a noble institution that has been beset by human frailty," said Democrat Kevin Dougherty, a fellow Common Pleas judge in Philadelphia. "It is time for closure, and the election of three new justices will do exactly that."

The rhetoric came just hours after Justice Michael Eakin issued a statement apologizing for swapping "insensitive" emails with prosecutors, and it served as a not-so-subtle critique of that scandal and others that have ensnared justices in recent years.

The very first question to the three women and four men on the ballot homed in on the Eakin controversy. Most called for an independent investigation to determine the scope of the problem.

But the email furor wasn't the only topic. Throughout the 90-minute forum, the candidates also discussed diversity in the court system, equal access for the poor, and how or if money and political affiliations can affect judicial fairness.

With candidates barred from campaigning on how they may rule on specific cases, state judicial elections have traditionally been low-wattage contests, and this debate held true to form.

In accord

There were no fireworks - and even few significant disagreements - among the three Republicans, three Democrats, and one independent. They sat alongside one another at a conference room table, taking questions from a panel of three journalists and moderator Lynn Marks, who as executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts has been a longtime advocate for reform.

At one point, Judith Olson, a Republican and a Superior Court judge from Allegheny County, said, "I'm going to sound like a broken record," before repeating the unanimously held view that judicial decisions should not be influenced by politics.

But there were several in-depth interludes far afield from the Eakin scandal. And many of the candidates were forceful in declaring the court's focus needed to return to issues of the law.

"What is going on with our court system?" asked Mike George, a Republican and president judge of Adams County Court. "We need to do exactly what we do with our families, with our children, with our businesses: Let's set expectations, let's raise the bar of expectations."

Though quiet thus far, the contest is the only election in the country this fall involving a high court. It is also the first time since 1704 that three Supreme Court seats were up for grabs.

Two Democrats and three Republicans currently sit on the bench. The election could result in a dominant majority for one party - and the ability to shape and interpreting state laws affecting millions of citizens for years to come. Among the topics likely to come before the court are cases on the death penalty, redistricting, natural gas drilling, and workers' issues.

The contest is also the first chance for voters to fill seats vacated after years of embarrassing scandals.

One came open when former Justice Jane Orie Melvin was convicted for corruption; another emerged when Justice Seamus McCaffery retired last year to end an inquiry into pornographic emails he may have received or sent. The third seat belonged to former Chief Justice Ronald Castille, who hit mandatory retirement age.

The unprecedented number of openings stirred a similarly historic number of candidates - and a surge of money to their campaigns, the only statewide contest this year. Through this summer, at least $8.4 million had been poured into campaign coffers.

Several Democratic candidates - who have so far raised more than their Republican counterparts, largely thanks to union contributions - have started running television ads. And rumors have also swirled that well-heeled super PACs could swoop in and blitz airwaves with commercials for Republican candidates as Election Day draws closer.

'Dark money'

That topic came up when the candidates were asked why some did not sign a pledge against the use of so-called dark money.

Most replied that they have no control over such independent expenditure groups, and that such a pledge was meaningless if the contributions are independent and within the law.

"I have no idea who has dark money," said David Wecht, a Superior Court judge from Allegheny County. "Unfortunately, [such outside groups] have the power to do what they are going to do."

Olson said her contributors "are all out there" and she wouldn't support a flood of such outside contributions. "The last thing we need is anybody believing that justice can be purchased," she said.

Still, George, of Adams County, asserted that "hundreds of thousands of dollars is being contributed in this election from special interests. Why is no one talking about that?"

He also raised the idea of an "automatic recusal" if a judge was tasked with deciding a case that involved one of his or her major donors.

Christine Donohue, a Democrat and Superior Court judge from Allegheny County, said judges have long been tasked with deciding when they face potential conflicts of interest, and that automatic recusals could be too prescriptive.

'Very seriously'

"Judges have been doing this analysis for decades now in Pennsylvania," she said. "From my perspective, I take that role very, very seriously."

Wecht, whose campaign raised $1.6 million in 13 weeks this summer, put it more bluntly: "Does that mean if somebody gives 50 cents, that the judge will automatically recuse himself?" he said.

The judges were united on several topics, particularly their belief that partisan politics does not influence the judicial system.

"Justice serves all, and it's not along party lines," said Republican Anne Covey, a Commonwealth Court judge from Bucks County.

Several candidates also said the courts lack equal access for those who can't afford expensive attorneys, and that the criminal system, in particular, can be hurt by overburdened public defenders.

"We have an obligation to all look at what we need to serve the people to ensure there is equal access to justice for all," Covey said.

Dougherty, like others, said that it could come down to money, and that legislators should consider whether additional funding should be set aside for court-provided lawyers.

In the end, the scandals - and their fallout - remained a pivotal part of the conversation. During closing statements, nearly every candidate used a variation of the word integrity to sum up why he or she should be elected.

Echoing the near-unanimous theme of the night, Panepinto said: "I believe in justice above politics."

cpalmer@phillynews.com

609-217-8305 @cs_palmer