Pa. Supreme Court race sets spending record; Democrats backed by plaintiffs bar win all three open spots

By John O'Brien | Nov 5, 2015


HARRISBURG – The spending on this year’s seven-candidate race for state Supreme Court, boosted by trial lawyers who helped give Democrats a majority on the court, broke a national record.

When all the cash was spent, the victors were Philadelphia judge Kevin Dougherty and Superior Court judges David Wecht and Christine Donohue. Contributions to seven candidates topped $11 million, and even more was spent by political action committees on advertising.

The spending exceeded the previous record for a state supreme court election - $15.19 million in a 2004 race in Illinois between Justice Lloyd Karmeier and Gordon Maag.

“We could see this coming like a freight train in Pennsylvania,” said Liz Seaton, interim executive director of Justice at Stake, an organization that tracks spending in judicial elections.

“Everyone should be stunned that a national spending record for state judicial elections has fallen. The problem is growing, and Pennsylvanians deserve a better system for selecting their high court judges.”

Morning Call conducted an analysis of contributions, finding that lawyers gave more than $2.1 million to the three Democratic candidates. Unions also gave more than $1.7 million to the same candidates.

Republicans received funding from a more diverse crowd, Morning Call reported. Money came in from GOP political action committees, the medical profession and the insurance and financial industries.

The Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association’s PAC gave $385,000, most of which went to Democrats, Morning Call reported.

Pennsylvanians for Judicial Reform, a committee chaired by a former chair of the state Democratic Party, sponsored anti-Republican ads leading up to Election Day.

Much of PJR’s funding - $150,000 – came from the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association. PJR also raised $50,000 each from two unions.

The ads upset Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.

“Negative ads serve no purpose other than to discourage voters from seriously evaluating judicial candidates by using scare tactics such as selective editing and ominous voice overs,” she said.

Democrats now hold a 4-3 majority on the court.

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