Attack ads and millions of dollars flow into race for Pennsylvania Supreme Court seat

The race between Democrat Dan McCaffery and Republican Carolyn Carluccio won't change the partisan balance on the high court, but it could narrow the Democratic majority.

Candidate for Pennsylvania Supreme Court Judge Daniel McCaffery poses for a photo

File photo: Candidate for Pennsylvania Supreme Court Judge Daniel McCaffery poses for a portrait in Norristown, PA Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023. Spending in Pennsylvania's state Supreme Court has picked up, with millions flowing into the race between McCaffery and Republican Carolyn Carluccio although either winner won't change the partisan balance on the seven-seat high court, but it could narrow the Democratic majority to a one-vote margin should Carluccio win. (AP Photo/Ryan Collerd, File)

Spending in the campaign for an open Pennsylvania state Supreme Court seat is picking up, with millions of dollars flowing into the race as the sides sharpen their attacks over questions about ethics and abortion rights.

The race between Democrat Dan McCaffery and Republican Carolyn Carluccio won’t change the partisan balance on the seven-seat high court, but it could narrow the Democratic majority to a one-vote margin, 4-3, should Carluccio win.

Total reported spending has passed $4.5 million, with millions more likely before the Nov. 7 election. Much of the campaign cash is from trial lawyers, labor unions and a billionaire who is considered one of the GOP’s top national donors.

That money is underwriting attack ads.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

In one flier, a pro-Carluccio group tried to tie McCaffery to a nearly decade-old email scandal that resulted in McCaffery’s brother, a one-time state Supreme Court justice, stepping down from the court.

“Can we really trust Dan McCaffery on our court?” the flier said. It’s sponsored by the Commonwealth Leaders Fund, a group that is a conduit for campaign donations from Jeffrey Yass, a securities trading billionaire who spends millions to support school choice, anti-tax and anti-regulation groups.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported at the time that then-Justice Seamus McCaffery had sent two lewd emails in early 2014 to Dan McCaffery, who was then a Philadelphia judge.

Dan McCaffery responded to ask Seamus to send such messages to his personal email account, the Inquirer reported.

Carluccio, in turn, is the target of TV ads by Planned Parenthood’s national political arm and a pro-McCaffery group called Pennsylvanians for Judicial Fairness that say she is a threat to abortion rights in Pennsylvania.

Carluccio, a Montgomery County judge, is endorsed by a pair of anti-abortion groups, the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation and Pro-Life Coalition of Pennsylvania. One has said it did so after she represented herself as “pro-life.”

Publicly, she has avoided saying whether she supports or opposes abortion rights, and instead said she will uphold a state law that makes the procedure legal.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“It has fascinated me that my opponents have made this entire race about abortion and the reality is, it has nothing to do with this race,” Carluccio told a conservative radio host last week. “The law is very set in Pennsylvania.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year to overturn Roe v. Wade and end nearly a half-century of federal abortion protections left the question to states. In Pennsylvania, the law allows an abortion up to the Roe v. Wade standard of 24 weeks, with exceptions for rape, incest and to protect the life of the mother.

On Tuesday, her campaign began airing a TV ad in Philadelphia in which she says, “The truth? I will uphold the law, including women’s reproductive rights.”

McCaffery, who sits on the statewide appellate Superior Court, has been blunt about his positions and warned that electing Carluccio and other Republican judges will undo the gains that Democrats have fought for, including voting, labor and abortion rights.

“We cannot allow those gains to be stripped away,” McCaffery told an online gathering of the Democratic Committee of Lower Merion and Narberth last week. Those are rights that “we Democrats have fought for the last 60 years. I’m unapologetic about it. We elect judges in Pennsylvania, the voters have a right to know what we are and what we stand for.”

In recent years, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court has been pivotal in major voting rights and election-related cases, including rejecting GOP-drawn congressional districts as unconstitutionally gerrymandered and rejecting a Republican effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election won by Democrat Joe Biden in a bid to keep then-President Donald Trump in power.

Carluccio has reported spending more than $2.8 million, including contributions of good and services, with $600,000 still in the bank through Sept. 18.

Of that spending, more than $2.1 million was spent on fliers and TV ads by Commonwealth Leaders Fund.

McCaffery has reported spending about $900,000 including contributions of good and services, with $1.2 million in the bank.

Labor unions have given more than $630,000 to McCaffery’s campaign, while trial lawyers’ groups have given more than $1 million.

On top of that, Planned Parenthood and Pennsylvanians for Judicial Fairness have spent hundreds of thousands more, with more spending coming.

The ACLU said it will spend more than $1 million in the race, and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee said it will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Democrats hold a 4-2 majority on the court, which has an open seat following the death last fall of Chief Justice Max Baer, a Democrat.

Get the WHYY app!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal