A national Republican group is committing more than $1 million to running ads in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court race, opening with a harsh attack on a Democratic candidate, Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Kevin Dougherty.
Dougherty has spent years in Philadelphia Family Court, and the hard-hitting 30-second spot (above) focuses on his role in a notorious criminal case.
The political stakes are high in the Pennsylvania race. With three of the Supreme Court’s seven seats up for grabs, the election may determine partisan control of the court for years.
National partisan groups have been spending money in state supreme court races in recent years since they can affect redistricting, voting access, and other issues of partisan interest. Now, two weeks before the Nov. 3 election, a leading national Republican group has opened an offensive in Pennsylvania.
In the Republican State Leadership Committee’s ad, an announcer says Dougherty “shockingly allowed a young girl to be placed in the custody of a convicted murderer. The heartbreaking outcome — years of beating, starvation, and weeks on end of confinement.”
“Dougherty’s excuse? He had no recollection of knowing about the murderer’s background,” the announcer says.
The claims in the ad are accurate, according to press accounts, but missing important context. In 2002, Dougherty did place the girl in the custody of her aunt, at the recommendation of city social workers, a child advocate, and the girl’s mother.
It was nine years later that the aunt, Linda Ann Weston, was arrested for abusing the child and keeping four mentally disabled adults in a basement dungeon. A Dougherty campaign statement says he was never informed of the woman’s criminal history, and was never accused of wrongdoing in the case or subsequent litigation (full statement below).
Dougherty spokesman Ken Snyder says when evaluating the ad, voters should consider the source.
“This is a right-wing group funded by wealthy special interests known for airing misleading, sleazy negative advertising against Democratic candidates across the country,” Snyder said. “This is just more of the same about a good judge.”
The Pennsylvania Republican State Committee has also released an online video making the same charges against Dougherty.
Sources familiar with the ad placement say the initial RSLC buy is more than $500,000 on TV time for the Dougherty ad and a positive ad about Republican candidates Anne Covey and Judith Olson.
A statement released this morning by the RSLC says it has launched its “Judicial Fairness Initiative” in Pennsylvania, “a two-week, multi-platform ad campaign with an initial investment of more than $1 million highlighting the records of three state Supreme Court candidates.”
The statement indicates the ads will focus on the records of Democrat Dougherty and Republicans Covey and Olson. There was no mention of the other two Democratic candidates, Superior Court Judges David Wecht and Christine Donohue, or the other Republican, Adams County President Judge Michael George.
Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, condemned the negative ad, as she did an attack on Republican candidates last week by an independent group funded by trial lawyers and unions.
“We’ve seen this now from both sides,” Marks said in a phone interview. “We feel equally as strongly, whether it’s the Republican State Leadership Committee or another group. These negative ads serve no purpose other than discouraging voters from carefully evaluating judicial candidates.”
Here’s the full statement from the Dougherty campaign responding to the RSLC attack:
“Voters should rely on recommendations of Kevin Dougherty by bipartisan and credible groups that know him best, and reject smears by shady partisan groups based out-of-state. The “Republican State Leadership Committee” is a right wing, out-of-state organization funded by wealthy special interests known for airing misleading, sleazy and negative advertising against Democratic candidates across the country.
In RSLC¹s latest assault on the truth, they mislead and smear Judge Kevin Dougherty. Judge Dougherty, a former Major Crimes Prosecutor and highly regarded Administrative Judge of the largest trial court system in the state, is widely viewed as one of the top children¹s advocates in the Pennsylvania court system.
Judge Dougherty has been endorsed by Pennsylvania Law Enforcement groups including the State Troopers Association, the Pennsylvania FOP and District Attorney¹s from across the Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Bar Association lauded Dougherty’s integrity and superior work ethic when recommending him for the Supreme Court.”