Racing for the bench: Six things to know about who's funding Pa. judicial races

Voters across the region will head to the polls on Tuesday to vote (WHYY, file)

Voters across the region will head to the polls on Tuesday to vote (WHYY, file)

On Tuesday, Pennsylvanians will elect seven people to appellate courts in statewide elections, and, as usual, most voters will have no ideas who the candidates are.

But the winners – one Supreme Court justice, two members of Commonwealth Court, which hears cases involving government policy, and four for Superior Court, which hears civil and criminal appeals – will have a lot of influence on a lot of lives. And they’ll stay on the bench as long as they want.

Money matters a lot in these elections, so I’ve crunched some data from the two campaign finance reports filed since the primary, covering fundraising from June 6 through Oct. 23. Here are some things I learned:

Big money matters

The 15 candidates for those posts raised just under $4 million since the primary election, and almost exactly half of it came in contributions of $10,000 or more. This is a state in which there are no limits on campaign contributions, so the wealthy or well-funded special interests can have a huge impact.

Philly trial lawyers are the big dogs

By far the biggest contributor was the Committee for a Better Tomorrow, the PAC of the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association. I tallied $960,000 in contributions, about a quarter of all the donations.

The trial lawyers normally lean Democratic, but this time they snubbed Democratic state Supreme Court nominee Dwayne Woodruff and instead gave $150,000 to Republican nominee, Justice Sallie Mundy. They say they like her qualifications. I’m sure it didn’t hurt that Mundy’s husband is a former president of the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association.

Building trades unions came to play

I tallied $405,000 in contributions from construction unions to judicial candidates, mostly Democrats. The exception was Republican Superior Court candidate Christine Fizzano Cannon, who scored $80,000 in building trades contributions. She’s from Delaware County, where the trades and the Republican organization are tight.

Personal relationships matter

Pennsylvania Future Fund, the political action committee of Montgomery County Republican fundraising powerhouse Bob Asher, gave to several judicial candidates, as well as the state and many county Republican Party organizations. But the PAC’s donations to Commonwealth Court candidate Paul Lalley were eye-popping: more than $200,000 just since June.

Any particular reason?

“Yeah, I’m his finance chairman because his dad is my best friend, and his mom,” Asher told me. “We’ve known each other forever, and I knew Paul growing up. So when he asked me, I was honored to do that.”

There’s a Democratic brownout for Supreme Court

Two years ago, Democrats dominated spending in a historic judicial election and captured three seats on the state Supreme Court. This year, Republican Mundy has outraised Democrat Woodruff by a 4-1 ratio.

Woodruff’s campaign manager Micah Sims told me there are a few reasons, including the trial lawyers donations (see above). But he said the slate of Democratic candidates has done well as a group, and they can rely on anti-Trump Democrats to turn out in force. (A new batch of 15-second TV ads begin with the phrase “Angry about Donald Trump?”)

It’s just us

There appears to be no major effort by national groups to mount independent expenditure campaigns for judicial candidates, though Politico reports the Republican National Committee has committed $50,000 for digital ads for judicial elections here. This is mostly a home-grown Pennsylvania battle.

The Money Race – spending by Pa Statewide Judicial candidates in general election – 2017

Supreme Court

Candidate Spent On Hand
Mundy, Sallie, [R] $547,112 $368,556
Woodruff, Dwayne (D) $125,986 $55,087

 

Commonwealth Court

Candidate Spent On Hand
Ceisler, Ellen (D) $270,283 $82,253
Clark, Irene (D) $3,829 $3,483
Fizzano Cannon, Christine [R] $522,794 $189,569
Lalley, Paul [R] $368,258 $102,388

 

Superior Court

Candidate Spent On Hand
Giordano, Emil [R] $208,074 $53,472
Kagarise, Wade [R] $87,133 $16,175
Kunselman, Deborah (D) $367,911 $75,111
McLaughlin, Maria (D) $686,318 $138,651
Mermelstein, Jules (Green) $6,472 $3,870
Moulton, Geoffrey (D) $180,981 $73,431
Murray, Mary [R] $36,331 $5,060
Nichols, Carolyn (D) $106,193 $77,456
Stedman, Craig [R] $137,322 $40,363

source: Pa campaign finance reports – reflects spending June 6 through Oct. 23rd

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