Meet the candidates: Race for Pa. Supreme Court kicks off with virtual forum

People walk by the Pennsylvania Judicial Center Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015, at the state Capitol in Harrisburg.

People walk by the Pennsylvania Judicial Center Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015, at the state Capitol in Harrisburg. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

Candidates for an open seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court sought to cast themselves as independent, neutral arbiters of justice during a forum Wednesday evening. Four judges — three Republicans and a Democrat — are vying for the state’s high court and will be on the primary ballot in May.

The Pennsylvania Republican Party has endorsed Pa. Commonwealth Court Judge Kevin Brobson for the seat. Also running against him for the GOP nomination in the May 18 primary is Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Paula Patrick, and Commonwealth Court Judge Patricia McCullough.

Democrat Maria McLaughlin, who serves on the Pa. Superior Court, got her party’s endorsement and is running unopposed in the primary election. She will face the GOP primary winner on Nov. 2.

At a forum hosted by the Free Library of Philadelphia and the group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, Brobson, of the Harrisburg area, maintained that while he has always been personally conservative, “politics have no place in our judiciary.”

McLaughlin, a Philadelphia native, echoed that she has no plans to ever “legislate from the bench.”

Patrick, of Philadelphia, said she has always sought to separate herself from “politics, public opinion or money.” McCullough, of the Pittsburgh area, said she considers herself a conservative judge reluctant to overturn precedents, but wouldn’t always favor Republicans.

She recently got considerable attention for being one of the only lower court judges in Pennsylvania to rule in favor of former President Donald Trump’s campaign when it sued to have election certification delayed.

Running for judicial election in Pennsylvania often means walking a thin line between courting donors and voters, and staying above the political fray.

Instead of having the governor and legislature select judges by merit, or conducting nonpartisan contests, as many states do, the commonwealth picks its judges through partisan statewide elections.

The rules for these elections are different from any other political race, though. While judges do run under the umbrella of a party, raise money through campaign committees and collect endorsements from political groups, they aren’t allowed to solicit donations directly. They also can’t promise to rule a certain way on any specific issues.

At several points, the judges acknowledged those inherent contradictions.

“Do I think that we should have nonpartisan elections? Well sure,” Patrick said. “But the current state now is we have partisan elections … I fully believe in the platform of my own political party, which is why I’m running.”

Brobson, who noted he served as chair of Pennsylvania’s Judicial Conduct Board, said he thinks his conservative leanings inform his judicial philosophy, but not in inherently political ways.

“I am what they would consider a strict constructionist,” he said. “I believe in the separation of powers, I believe in judicial restraint, I believe in reading laws as they’re written and the provisions of the constitution as they are written.”

He recently ruled on several high-profile cases involving the counting of ballots in the 2020 election. In one case, he took a measured approach to a GOP attempt to invalidate ballots that had been fixed by voters, ordering them not to be immediately thrown out, but to be segregated from other ballots. In a subsequent case, he ruled in favor of Republicans who wanted to toss out more than 2,000 mail ballots that had been submitted without dates.

McLaughlin, meanwhile, rejected the premise that her Democratic affiliation would color her decisions. She became a Democrat, she said, because growing up her father told her that “Democrats put food on the table.”

“I want to be a judge. I don’t want to be a politician. It just so happens in Pennsylvania that’s how you get there,” she said. “Infer from me that you have a hardworking judge who knows where she came from.”

While the election won’t decide control of the Democratic-dominated court, it’s still a priority for Republicans. They lost control of the high court in 2015 during a tumultuous period, following revelations that several judges had been exchanging offensive emails.

Since then, Republicans have chafed at the Democratic justices’ decisions, which have included an order to redraw the commonwealth’s congressional districts that made Democrats more competitive, and a decision allowing emergency changes to voting laws ahead of the 2020 election.

With their chances of retaking the court virtually zero until at least 2025, when the Democratic justices face retention elections, Republicans in the state legislature have launched a plan to totally remake the court by electing judges by region. Their proposed constitutional amendment could force more than one Democrat off the court by requiring justices — who are currently concentrated in cities — to run in geographic districts drawn by the legislature.

Supporters say the plan would create more regional diversity. Democrats, who uniformly oppose it, say it’s an attempt to gerrymander the courts and ensure outsize GOP control. The measure has already passed the legislature once and would have to pass again before going to a voter referendum.

Barring a major constitutional change, however, the best Republicans can do in the near future is maintain their current minority. The party holds just two of the court’s seven seats, and one of those sitting Republicans, Chief Justice Thomas Saylor, has hit the court’s age limit of 75 and must retire. The next most senior judge, Allegheny County Democrat Max Baer, will take over as chief justice.

The other two appellate courts also have major elections this year. On the Superior Court, two justices are running in yes-or-no retention elections, and there will be a partisan election for one seat. The Commonwealth Court will have two retention elections and two partisan elections.

Judges on Pennsylvania’s three appellate courts all serve 10-year terms.

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