Powerful special interests are pouring millions into the 2021 Pa. Supreme Court race

The exterior of the Pennsylvania Judicial Center.

The exterior of the Pennsylvania Judicial Center. (Kent M. Wilhelm/Spotlight PA)

This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.

Labor unions, lawyers, and a political committee with ties to a billionaire advocate for school choice are underwriting the increasingly contentious race for a spot on Pennsylvania’s top court.

Democrat Maria McLaughlin this year raised nearly $2.7 million, including $1.8 million from a Philadelphia group of criminal and civil trial lawyers and from unions that represent teachers, truck drivers, and police, campaign finance reports filed last week show.

Republican Kevin Brobson received the majority of his $2.8 million from a single political action committee: the conservative Commonwealth Leaders Fund. The group receives much of its financial support from PACs associated with Jeffrey Yass, the suburban Philadelphia billionaire owner of a financial and technology firm who has spent millions over the years to advance tuition vouchers for children in poor-performing districts.

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The flow of dollars in an off-year race underscores the importance of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which has been the final arbiter in recent years of high-stakes and highly partisan conflicts surrounding elections and redistricting.

The Nov. 2 election to replace outgoing Justice Thomas Saylor, a Republican, will not change the balance of power on the bench, where Democrats currently hold five of seven seats. But the new justice will have a hand in what cases the court accepts and will weigh in on significant matters in the coming months, including one that could change how the state funds its poorest school districts.

The large-scale donations to both campaigns also showcase the state’s lax campaign finance rules, which place no limits on contributions, allowing deep-pocketed individuals and PACs to sway election outcomes. Pennsylvania is one of the few states that elects appellate court judges, including Supreme Court justices, through partisan races.

“We don’t appreciate as a country how important state supreme courts are,” said Bruce Ledewitz, a Duquesne University law professor and an expert on Pennsylvania’s high court. “They are vastly more important to our everyday decision making than the U.S. Supreme Court.”

In recent years, the state Supreme Court has thrown out Pennsylvania’s gerrymandered congressional map, upheld Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s coronavirus pandemic restrictions, and decided contentious issues involving the state’s mail voting law.

It is possible that the state’s upcoming congressional and state legislative maps could ultimately end up before the high court.

Campaign finance reports due Oct. 22 show both candidates raised the bulk of their money — over $1 million each — in the past two months alone. McLaughlin raked in $1.3 million in direct and in-kind contributions since mid-September, while Brobson brought in $1.5 million.

Overall, McLaughlin, a longtime prosecutor who is now a state Superior Court judge, brought in more than $900,000 from unions since the start of the year. The Supreme Court has, in recent years, weighed in on labor cases with far-reaching effects on workers and employers, including one that mandated workers be compensated for time spent in security checks at Amazon warehouses.

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Top donations came from the Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Philadelphia local and the United Association. Two teachers unions, the Pennsylvania State Education Association and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, gave another $60,000 combined.

The Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association, a group of civil and criminal litigation lawyers, gave $850,000 through its Committee For A Better Tomorrow, while Fairness PA injected another $50,000 into McLaughlin’s campaign. The latter fueled Wolf’s 2018 bid for reelection, but later became a source of controversy for the governor for drawing support from doctors and lawyers looking to indirectly oppose limits on how much pharmacies can charge insurance.

McLaughlin’s largest individual donor this year: Neil T. O’Donnell, a personal injury lawyer based in Luzerne County. She also received support from the state Democratic Party, which spent about $272,000 on creating and distributing campaign materials; and from former Philadelphia Controller Jonathan Saidel’s PAC, Bridge Across Pennsylvania, which paid for billboard advertisements worth $23,780. Saidel is married to McLaughlin.

McLaughlin’s campaign manager, Celeste Dee, said the large donations from interest groups have no influence on how she presides.

“It’s just not who she is,” Dee said. “Her judicial record shows it. She has been in the legal profession for 29 years. If that was the case, I think you would have seen that already.”

Brobson, currently a Commonwealth Court judge, received the majority of his campaign cash from the Commonwealth Leaders Fund, a political action committee associated with longtime conservative strategist Matt Brouillette.

The Commonwealth Leaders Fund this year received the majority of its money from a related PAC called the Commonwealth Children’s Choice Fund. The latter gets much of its money from yet another PAC associated with Yass.

In an email, Brouillette — the onetime head of the libertarian-leaning Commonwealth Foundation think tank — said the PAC has invested in Brobson’s campaign because “we care about our courts because special interests have turned them into a super-legislature to advance a preferred policy agenda that harms families, taxpayers, and job creators across Pennsylvania.”

Asked whether Commonwealth Leaders amounts to a special interest group, given that much of its funding traces back to a single donor with a well-publicized cause, Brouillette responded: “Our special interest is for equality before the law for everyone, and favor for no one.”

Brobson’s campaign did not return a phone call or respond to a text message seeking comment.

The majority of the nearly $1.9 million Brobson received from the Commonwealth Leaders Fund was in the form of in-kind donations — those for goods or services, rather than direct financial giving — for unspecified “production” and “digital media” costs.

Brobson also received large donations from the state Republican Party, which contributed $504,000; and from Bob Asher, a Montgomery County candymaker and, until last year, a veteran Republican National Committee member, who together with his PAC contributed $85,000. Brobson’s wife, Lauren Brobson, also loaned his campaign $20,000.

Brobson’s campaign also benefited from large independent expenditures, or money spent by groups that want to influence an election but are not allowed to coordinate with a candidate’s campaign.

The national Republican State Leadership Committee’s Judicial Fairness Initiative, for instance, spent just over $152,500 on Brobson’s behalf. The Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry separately spent just under $192,000. Both groups spent the money for television ads.

Recent rulings have made the Supreme Court a target among some Republicans, who contend that the justices have attempted to legislate from the bench and taken partisan stances on highly charged issues. Separately, advocates outside the legislature have pushed for years to do away with partisan elections and instead select judges based on merit — although opponents say campaign dollars would simply shift to the people overseeing the appointments.

In the legislature, several GOP lawmakers in recent months have pushed proposals to require appellate-level judges to run in district elections, rather than statewide ones, in an effort to give more voting power to Pennsylvania’s less populous areas. Legislators passed one resolution to amend the state constitution, but have not voted on the second resolution required to put the issue on the ballot for voters to decide.

Such a change could further politicize the courts, Kadida Kenner, executive director of the New Pennsylvania Project and co-chair of Why Courts Matter-PA, said during a panel on judicial races hosted by Spotlight PA.

“The future of the courts is right now in the hands of Pennsylvanians,” she said. “As long as we can continue to come out and vote in judicial elections in record numbers, that’s important that we do that, while we continue to vote for our judges.”

Spotlight PA logoSpotlight PA is an independent, non-partisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media.

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