'The most significant race in recent memory' for Pa. Supreme Court

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.

HARRISBURG - The low-wattage contest for Pennsylvania's Supreme Court got a few jolts of energy last week, thanks to a blitz of television ads and the release of pornographic emails tied to a sitting justice.

Probably not what the seven candidates envisioned when they launched their campaigns.

After all, their race is the only one nationwide this year for a state's high court. And it's the first time since a British monarch ruled the state that three of the court's seven seats are simultaneously up for grabs - meaning either party could secure a majority on a bench tasked with interpreting far-reaching laws.

"It's probably the most significant race in recent memory," said Kyle Kopko, political science professor at Elizabethtown College, noting the court could decide cases affecting the death penalty, legislative redistricting, and Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane's ability to stay in office.

But such consequences have taken a backseat to the slow release of Justice J. Michael Eakin's emails - the third scandal to ensnare a justice in as many years - and a flood of negative advertising, primarily funded by independent political groups.

One, called Pennsylvanians for Judicial Reform, started running ads attacking Republican candidates' qualifications and integrity. Led by former Lt. Gov. Mark Singel, the group is funded by reliable Democratic blocs, such as trial lawyers and unions.

One target, Commonwealth Court Judge Anne Covey, of Bucks County, hired a libel lawyer after an ad suggested she took credit for legal articles she didn't write. She called it "fabricated lies."

Meanwhile, a national GOP organization, the Republican State Leadership Committee, promised to spend $1 million on the race. One of its ads promotes Covey and a fellow Republican, while another targets Democrat Kevin Dougherty, a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge.

That ad said Dougherty placed a girl in the custody of a convicted murderer who beat and tortured her - but didn't mention the city's Department of Human Services had recommended the girl's placement. Dougherty's lawyer said he has demanded the ad stop running.

Nearly all of the candidates - three Republicans, three Democrats, one independent - have sought to distance themselves from the outside interests, saying they can't control advocacy groups.

Their campaigns together had raised more than $9.7 million in donations through Monday, according to finance reports.

Michael R. Dimino, law professor at Widener University Commonwealth Law School, said fewer scandals would be a welcome development for the court - and citizens. "People tend not to think of courts as making policy the same way they think of governor or a legislature," he said. "They make policy differently, [and] exercise a tremendous amount of power in the way that government does things."

The winners will join two Democrats and two Republicans on the bench, earning 10-year terms and $203,000 a year until mandatory retirement at 70.

Each candidate has years of judicial experience - largely out of the spotlight. Barred from campaigning on how they might rule on cases, each cast himself or herself in interviews as a judge who would bring integrity to the court.

Two have recognizable names. Dougherty is brother to John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty, the city union leader and power broker. David Wecht, a Democrat and Superior Court judge from Allegheny County, is the son of forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht, who raised questions about the deaths of Elvis Presley and John F. Kennedy.

But even Wecht and Dougherty acknowledge feeling overshadowed by the 2016 election. "It's great that people are excited about the presidential race," said Wecht. "But people should be very excited about this race."

Both have appeared frequently with the other Democrat, Christine Donohue, a Superior Court judge from Allegheny County. While hesitant to call themselves a ticket, all three have collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from labor unions and trial lawyers. All also insisted it will not affect their ability to rule fairly.

"I have never been involved in any decision that in any way was decided along partisan or political lines," Donohue said.

Dougherty said anyone appearing before the court has a right to question whether a judge has a conflict of interest. "I conduct myself accordingly, [and] if there was ever an appearance of impropriety, I would recuse myself," he said.

Republican Mike George, president judge of Adams County Common Pleas Court, has proposed judges automatically recuse themselves from cases involving their donors. He declined to name candidates or groups that could be affected. But George, who has lagged in fund-raising, said he wanted to remove any motive for special interests "to attempt to purchase justice."

George hoped no candidate would trade favors for contributions, he said, "but, knowing the reality, it's also the perception which threatens the integrity of the court."

Independent Paul Panepinto, a Philadelphia Common Pleas judge, was outspoken about what he felt was the undue influence of politics in this race. After failing to win the GOP endorsement, Panepinto said he believes party leaders had predetermined the nominees. "They just run you through like cattle. How is that a fair process to evaluate someone?" he said.

Covey had equally sharp words for the Pennsylvania Bar Association, which gave her a negative evaluation because she ran a negative ad during her 2011 Commonwealth Court campaign. Covey blasted the process as "disgraceful," orchestrated by "an elite few behind closed doors."

Robert Morris, chairman of the group's evaluation commission, dismissed her contentions, saying Covey knew the process and complained "only after getting the results."

Like Covey, fellow Republican Judy Olson, a Superior Court judge, pledged to bring varied experiences and integrity to the bench. She said fresh faces could change the court's culture. If the new justices "start by always acting appropriately . . . we've gone a long way to turning the tide," she said.

Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a nonpartisan watchdog group, lamented the negative ads and scandals but said voters should be excited by the opportunity to remake the state's highest court. "It's going to be a real sea change," she said.

cpalmer@phillynews.com

609-217-8305

@cs_palmer


The Lineup

Here are the candidates for Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice:

Anne Covey

 

Currently: Commonwealth Court judge

From: New Hope

Party: Republican

Age: 55

Christine Donohue

 

Currently: Superior Court judge

From: Lansford, Pa.

Party: Democrat

Age: 62

Kevin Dougherty

 

Currently: administrative judge, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas

From: Philadelphia

Party: Democrat

Age: 53

Mike George

 

Currently: president judge, Adams County Court

From: Gettysburg

Party: Republican

Age: 54

Judy Olson

 

Currently: Superior Court judge

From: Franklin Park, Pa.

Party: Republican

Age: 58

Paul Panepinto

 

Currently: judge, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas

From: Philadelphia

Party: Independent

Age: 66

David Wecht

 

Currently: Superior Court judge

From: Pittsburgh

Party: Democrat

Age: 53