What you need to know about the PA Supreme Court race

Next month, voters will decide the direction of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for the foreseeable future by electing three new justices to the seven-member court.

The remaining members of the court are evenly split — two Democrats and two Republicans — so the election will determine the political makeup of the court for many years to come.

A Pennsylvania Supreme Court judge is elected for a 10-year term with the possibility to be retained for another 10-year term on a yes/no vote. Only one state Supreme Court justice (Russell Nigro in 2005) has ever lost a retention vote, so it is in the initial election that voters are making a key choice.

Since very few cases go to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court often makes final rulings on state law.

In recent weeks, the court heard arguments about whether Gov. Tom Wolf can impose a moratorium on the death penalty; whether he can fire the head of the state’s Office of Open Records; and the court will make a decision on health care for 182,000 Western Pennsylvania seniors in the Highmark-UPMC dispute.

Editor's note: PublicSource will be bringing you a post on the Supreme Court race at least every Tuesday and Thursday leading up to the Nov. 3 election. We’ll give you more information about the judges, their campaigns and the money behind it, and the role of the state Supreme Court.

“They get the final word on most cases that affect people,” said Bruce Ledewitz, a law professor at Duquesne University.

The court deals with cases about civil rights, religious rights, the environment and redistricting of congressional districts, Ledewitz said.

The court regularly decides cases that affect all Pennsylvania voters, however, turnout in these elections are often much lower than in midterm or presidential elections.

It’s a system that was purposefully put in place, Ledewitz said, because voters were intended to vote based on the candidate — not the party — in municipal and judicial elections.

In the last election of a Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice in 2009, about 20 percent of registered voters cast a vote.

Joseph DiSarro, chair of the political science department at Washington & Jefferson College, expects turnout to be closer to 33 percent this year because three members of the court will be elected and there will be more media coverage.

Even though it’s the least powerful, the judiciary is routinely the most trusted of the three branches of government.

PA Supreme Court Debate

Airs live 5-6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 14, on PCN and replays from 8:30-10 p.m.

In Pittsburgh, you can watch the debate on TV:
Comcast channel 48
Verizon channel 21 or channel 521 (HD)

You can also watch the free PCN stream online: http://bit.ly/1PrCfet

“Courts not only have to be fair and impartial, but they have to be seen as fair and impartial,” said Matt Menendez, counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan policy institute advocating for impartial courts. “Courts rely on the public trust in their judgements.”

The public’s trust in the state’s high court has been broken in recent years with scandals forcing two justices to resign with a third under investigation.

Justice Joan Orie Melvin resigned in 2013 after it was discovered she used her judicial staff to work for her campaign. Justice Seamus McCaffery stepped down last year because he sent or received hundreds of pornographic emails.

DiSarro said those justices have disgraced the position.

“They have brought one of the great institutions of this commonwealth into disrepute,” he said.

The Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board is investigating whether Justice J. Michael Eakin violated the state’s Code of Judicial Conduct with sexist and racist emails sent through a private email account.

The third vacancy exists because Justice Correale Stevens’ interim term was up, and he lost in the Republican primary.

Three of the remaining four justices will be forced to retire by 2018 because the mandatory retirement age for judges is 70.

candidate graphic, who's running

Who’s running?

There are seven judges running for three seats: three Democrats, three Republicans and one independent candidate.

The Democrats are: Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas Judge Kevin Dougherty, Superior Court Judge Christine Donohue and Superior Court Judge David Wecht.

The Republicans are: Commonwealth Court Judge Anne Covey, Adams County Court of Common Pleas Judge Michael George and Superior Court Judge Judith Olson.

Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas Judge Paul Panepinto is also running as an independent. He ran as a Republican in previous elections.

All seven candidates will appear for a debate on Wednesday at Widener University Commonwealth Law School in Harrisburg, which will also be broadcast on PCN.

The candidates coming from the Superior Court and the Commonwealth Court have experience in appeals, as those courts hear appeals from lower courts before cases could go up to the state Supreme Court.

The Superior Court handles most criminal and civil appeals, while the Commonwealth Court deals with lawsuits involving state or local government agencies.

The Court of Common Pleas are the state’s general trial courts.

Reach Eric Holmberg at 412-315-0266 or at eholmberg@publicsource.org. Follow him on Twitter @holmberges.